Disney escalates DeSantis feud with federal lawsuit | Courthouse News Service
Wednesday, November 29, 2023
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Disney escalates DeSantis feud with federal lawsuit

The clash between the entertainment giant and Florida's conservative governor began with Disney’s outspoken opposition to the state’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law.

(CN) — Disney filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday against Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, accusing him of orchestrating "a targeted campaign of government retaliation" to punish the company for its protected speech.

Filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida, Disney's complaint claims that DeSantis' conduct threatens "business operations, jeopardizes its economic future in the region, and violates its constitutional rights."

The filing is the latest escalation in a long-running feud between the California-based theme park operator and the Republican governor that started last year when the entertainment giant publicly opposed the state's so-called “Don’t Say Gay” legislation barring school instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade. DeSantis then accused the company of “crossing the line” and pledged to fight back against “woke corporations.”

In February, DeSantis signed legislation granting the state more authority over Disney World's company-controlled government and giving the governor the power to appoint the five members of a board of supervisors.

The board, which was previously controlled by Disney, oversees municipal services and development in a special district that encompasses Walt Disney World resort near Orlando. Known as the Reedy Creek Improvement District since the park’s beginnings in 1967, it is now called the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District. 

According to Wednesday’s lawsuit, DeSantis’ decision to void a recent development agreement and restrictive covenants that gave Disney vast control over future design and construction at the resort was “the latest strike.” The governor’s newly appointed board members urged him to do so last week.

“This government action was patently retaliatory, patently anti-business, and patently unconstitutional. But the governor and his allies have made clear they do not care and will not stop,” according to the complaint filed by Disney’s attorney Daniel Petrocelli with O'Melveny & Myers.

Disney claims the development plan nixed by DeSantis “laid foundations for spectacular economic growth in Central Florida” and would have created 13,000 new jobs over a 10-year period. The plan specified how much mixed-use commercial space the company can build on through 2032 and included mitigation efforts to designate portions of land for the protection and relocation of threatened and endangered species.

The lawsuit asserts there is nothing illegal about the plan because it was discussed and approved after public forums and the Florida Legislature reaffirmed the enforceability of all prior contracts.

“Disney takes seriously its responsibility to shareholders, employees, and the many residents and local businesses in Central Florida whose livelihoods depend on Walt Disney World. And Disney now is forced to defend itself against a state weaponizing its power to inflict political punishment,” the complaint states.

DeSantis recently declared that his team also plans “to look at things like taxes on the hotels” and road tolls, as well as “developing some of the property that the district owns” with “more amusement parks,” or even putting a state prison next to Walt Disney World.

The five board members he elected to run the district, who are all political donors and loyalists, were also listed as defendants in Disney’s lawsuit. 

They include Tampa attorney Martin Garcia, who is the board’s new chairman and runs the investment firm Pinehill Capital Partners, which reportedly gave $50,000 to a DeSantis-aligned political committee; Bridget Ziegler, a conservative education activist who was a major backer of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill; Pinellas County Republican attorney Brian Aungst Jr., who DeSantis previously appointed to a judicial nominating commission; Mike Sasso, a Winter Park attorney who the governor has appointed to a handful of boards; and Ron Peri, an Orlando-area businessman who runs The Gathering, a ministry “where faith and culture intersect.”

Last week, DeSantis announced additional legislation that will use the regulatory powers of the Florida government to exert unprecedented oversight on the resort's rides and monorail. The bill would end an exemption for Disney when it comes to ride inspections by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

While the agency is responsible for inspecting amusement rides in Florida, an exception exists for the state’s largest theme park operators such as Disney and Universal Destinations & Experiences, who conduct their own safety inspections. 

Under the new proposal, the exemption would end for rides in special governmental districts, which directly targets Disney World. 

Disney said in a statement that its inspectors have been leaders in the industry. According to other experts, operators for Disney and other large theme parks are skilled in examining their sophisticated rides, which run differently than those at county fairs that state or local agencies may be more familiar with.

Wednesday’s lawsuit calls the company’s feud with DeSantis “regrettable” and the result of expressing “a viewpoint the governor and his allies did not like.”

“Disney wishes that things could have been resolved a different way,” the complaint states. “But Disney also knows that it is fortunate to have the resources to take a stand against the state’s retaliation—a stand smaller businesses and individuals might not be able to take when the state comes after them for expressing their own views. In America, the government cannot punish you for speaking your mind.”

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