Disney slams DeSantis with five causes of action

New state law amounts to government retaliation against protected speech, company alleges

Disney slams DeSantis with five causes of action

Disney has filed a federal lawsuit against Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, alleging that his law overhauling Disney’s self-governing improvement district board was government retaliation for Disney’s political speech.

The suit, dated April 26, asked the court to confirm Disney’s agreements with its prior board securing the entertainment giant’s long-term development plans, which included the construction of additional major and minor theme parks through 2032. Disney alleged that the laws which allowed the Republican DeSantis to dissolve Disney’s self-governing improvement district and replace the board with a new oversight board comprising his appointees was unlawful.

The suit cited five causes of action against the abrogation of Disney’s contracts:

  • DeSantis’ new oversight board abrogated Disney’s contracts in violation of its rights under the contracts clause,
  • It violated Disney’s rights under the U.S. Fifth Amendment’s takings clause, which protects contract rights in specific real property against public intervention,
  • It was an “arbitrary and irrational” legislative act committed by a state entity and thus violated the due process clause of the 14th Amendment,
  • It was a “retaliatory state action” with punitive intent chilling Disney’s free speech in violation of the First Amendment, and
  • Changes in Disney’s self-governing district board allowing DeSantis appointees to oversee Disney operations chilled its speech, likewise in violation of the First Amendment.

Disney claimed that it simply “expressed its opinion on state legislation” – DeSantis’ Parental Rights in Education Act or “Don’t Say Gay” law – and was “then punished by the State for doing so”.

“This is as clear a case of retaliation as this Court is ever likely to see,” Disney’s suit alleged.

The Parental Rights in Education Act, popularly dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” law, banned discussions on sexual orientation and gender for young students. After the bill’s passage in March 2022 and following much public discussion on it, Disney alleged that it had “personally” given DeSantis a call to express its concern over the bill. It also publicly opposed its passage.

DeSantis hit back with public statements against Disney “getting involved” with the law, ultimately leading to Florida passing laws that would eventually seize from Disney control of the special district that helped develop Disney World, Reuters reported.

In effect, Florida undertook a “targeted campaign of government retaliation orchestrated at every step by Governor DeSantis as punishment for Disney’s protected speech,” Disney said.

The Disney contracts also gave Disney the power to review the appearance of exterior improvements to its properties, require Disney approval for the district’s use of Disney names and characters, and ban the district from selling merchandise referring to Disney through a series of restrictive covenants.

The new board still has the power to exercise limited governing powers, including the authority to impose some taxes, build and maintain roads, provide emergency services, adopt and enforce building codes, and operate utilities.

Defendants include DeSantis and members of the new governing board.

A DeSantis spokesperson commented in a statement forwarded to the Associated Press.

“We are unaware of any legal right that a company has to operate its own government or maintain special privileges not held by other businesses in the state,” a DeSantis spokesperson told the Associated Press. “This lawsuit is yet another unfortunate example of their hope to undermine the will of the Florida voters and operate outside the bounds of the law.”

Disney is represented by Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, O’Melveny & Myers, and Losey.

The judge in the case is Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker of Tallahassee, Florida, a nominee of former President Barack Obama who previously struck down laws passed pursuant to DeSantis’ conservative political agenda, Reuters reported.

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