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Judge dismisses Disney lawsuit against DeSantis

The case argued that the governor unfairly targeted the company for criticizing his policies.
 
Minnie and Mickey Mouse perform for guests during a musical show in the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World on July 14, 2023, in Lake Buena Vista.
Minnie and Mickey Mouse perform for guests during a musical show in the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World on July 14, 2023, in Lake Buena Vista. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]
Published Jan. 31|Updated Jan. 31

A federal judge has dismissed The Walt Disney Co.’s lawsuit against Gov. Ron DeSantis, saying the company’s argument that it was unlawfully punished over free speech lacked standing and merit.

The suit, filed last spring, argued that the governor acted impermissibly by disbanding the Reedy Creek Improvement District — a special district that oversaw much of the governance of the land on which Disney World sits — and replacing it with a new oversight board. Disney had argued DeSantis made the move in retaliation for company leaders publicly criticizing the Parental Rights in Education Act, commonly referred to as the Don’t Say Gay bill. That law restricts classroom instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation.

In a 17-page order, Judge Allen Winsor of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida in Tallahassee agreed that the change “works to Disney’s significant detriment,” but said the company could not point to the motivation behind the legislation to say it was unfairly targeted.

“It is true that the laws did not affect all districts, and it is true (at least accepting Disney’s allegations) that Disney faces the brunt of the harm,” Winsor wrote. “But Disney offers no support for its argument that the court is to undertake line drawing to determine just how many others a law must cover to avoid ‘singling out’ those they affect most.”

In a statement, DeSantis spokesperson Jeremy Redfern said Disney’s “Corporate Kingdom” was over.

“The days of Disney controlling its own government and being placed above the law are long gone,” Redfern said. “The federal court’s decision made it clear that Governor DeSantis was correct: Disney is still just one of many corporations in the state, and they do not have a right to their own special government. In short — as long predicted, case dismissed.”

Other defendants in the case included Secretary of Commerce J. Alex Kelly and the board of the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, which replaced Reedy Creek.

Disney’s original complaint, filed in April, argued that DeSantis “orchestrated at every step” a “targeted campaign of government retaliation” following the company’s criticism of the new law, which was opposed by members and allies of the state’s LGBTQ+ community. It argued that losing voting rights in the Reedy Creek Improvement District would not only harm its business, but impact “smaller businesses and individuals … when the State comes after them for expressing their own views.”

Disney had sought an injunction preventing the new board from making land-use decisions impacting the park. But injunctive relief, Winsor wrote, would not redress any measures already taken by DeSantis or Kelly — nor any coming down the pike.

“That action is in the past,” Winsor wrote. Disney’s “analysis could be different if the Governor had not yet made any appointments. But as things stand, if this court enjoined future appointments, Disney would face the same situation it faces now: It would be operating under the (new) board, over which it has no control.”

The judge cited court precedents preventing Disney from pointing to the motivation behind any specific legislation — including public statements by DeSantis or any other proponent — in arguing it was unfairly targeted. He wrote that he was “not aware of” any circuit or U.S. Supreme Court decision that relied on such statements to characterize a law as “viewpoint-based.”

And he dismissed Disney’s argument that even if the law didn’t specifically target the company, it came close enough.

“There is no ‘close enough’ exception,” Winsor wrote. “A law either explicitly singles out a specific group or it does not, and the laws here do not.”

Winsor was appointed to the bench by former President Donald Trump, DeSantis’ onetime rival for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. Last February, Winsor also rejected a lawsuit from parents, students and teachers that sought to block the Parental Rights in Education bill in the first place.

In a statement, Disney said it would “press forward” with its case.

“This is an important case with serious implications for the rule of law, and it will not end here,” read a Disney statement provided by a company spokesperson. “If left unchallenged, this would set a dangerous precedent and give license to states to weaponize their official powers to punish the expression of political viewpoints they disagree with.”

Times staff writer Emily L. Mahoney contributed to this story.