Disney sues DeSantis, saying it is victim of retaliation

Disney alleges that it has been the subject of “a targeted campaign of government retaliation — orchestrated at every step by Gov. DeSantis.”
The monorail passes over a 75,000-bloom lakeside garden at Walt Disney World. Disney has filed a lawsuit against Gov. Ron DeSantis in federal court.
The monorail passes over a 75,000-bloom lakeside garden at Walt Disney World. Disney has filed a lawsuit against Gov. Ron DeSantis in federal court. [ JOE BURBANK | Orlando Sentinel ]
Published April 26|Updated April 26

Disney sued Gov. Ron DeSantis in federal court Wednesday, bringing Florida’s heavyweight battle between its high-profile governor and one of its largest employers into the courtroom.

In the complaint, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts U.S. Inc. alleges that it has been the subject of “a targeted campaign of government retaliation — orchestrated at every step by Gov. DeSantis as punishment for Disney’s protected speech,” which the company said “now threatens Disney’s business operations, jeopardizes its economic future in the region, and violates its constitutional rights.”

DeSantis has been tangling with the company, including by trying to strip it of some of its expansive self-governing powers, since Disney spoke out in opposition to the Parental Rights in Education law, also called Don’t Say Gay, last year. Since then, Disney said it would freeze its political donations in the state, DeSantis called on lawmakers to replace the board overseeing the company’s Reedy Creek special taxing district and then Disney quietly entered into agreements to undercut the powers of that new board.

While the fight raged on, DeSantis used Disney as a punching bag in fundraising emails and stump speeches, delighting fans in his base and making some wealthy GOP donors nervous. All the while, it was unclear whether Disney, a company that has enjoyed decades of enormous political sway in Florida, would take the governor to court, even as some legal experts said that it could have a fairly strong First Amendment case.

But Wednesday, Disney signaled that the actions of DeSantis and his allies had gone too far.

The suit was filed minutes after a Disney World oversight board appointed by DeSantis voted to take back some of its power, revoking a deal that kept theme park design and construction decisions in the company’s hands. DeSantis has also recently vowed to look into possibly raising Disney’s taxes and even floated the idea of building a state prison near the theme park, and the Legislature has been moving forward with a bill to overturn Disney’s last-minute actions.

“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,” Taryn Fenske, a spokesperson for DeSantis, said in a statement Wednesday. “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.”

The news of the lawsuit broke while DeSantis was in Asia as part of an international trade mission to Japan, South Korea, Israel and the United Kingdom.

In the complaint, Disney says that it “sought to de-escalate the matter for nearly a year, trying several times to spark a productive dialogue with the DeSantis Administration. To no avail.” The company also downplayed the effect of its recent agreements, noting the new DeSantis-appointed board can still impose taxes, exercise eminent domain and build roads.

However, the documents do limit the board in some ways. For example, the restrictive covenant stipulated that most Reedy Creek properties had to be used for the purposes they were being used for in early February — before DeSantis’ handpicked board took over.

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The complaint quotes extensively from top Florida Republicans — including from DeSantis’ recent book — about the legislation they passed related to Disney, aiming to bolster the company’s argument that it was punished for speech.

”You got me on one thing, this bill does target one company. It targets the Walt Disney Company,” state Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, told a House committee last April, which is included in the complaint.

Also quoted are Florida Sen. Joe Gruters: “Disney is learning lessons and paying the political price of jumping out there on an issue”; and former DeSantis spokesperson Christina Pushaw: “Go woke, go broke.”

Disney alleges that Florida’s government has violated the U.S. Constitution in numerous ways: By voiding the development agreement, the DeSantis-backed board is interfering with a Disney contract; the board has taken Disney’s property, a violation of the Fifth Amendment; violated Disney’s due process, a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment; and violated Disney’s First Amendment rights, the lawsuit says.

Disney is asking the courts to invalidate the DeSantis-backed board’s move Wednesday as well as recent legislation targeting the company. It is also asking for attorney’s fees.

In a text, Fine, the state representative, said Disney’s assertions show a “stunning level of arrogance.”

“It is nothing short of breathtaking for a private company to sue claiming it is entitled to special privileges available to no other taxpayer in Florida. Disney had the right to seize the property of any Floridian — that was insane,” he wrote. “Disney is a guest in our state, and in Florida, Floridians set the rules, not woke Hollywood elites. I support Gov. DeSantis as we are forced to remind them of that — again.”

Information from the Associated Press is included in this report.