Disney Sues DeSantis Over Control of Its Florida Resort

The company said it was targeted by the government because it criticized a state education law.

Disney Sues DeSantis Over Control of Its Florida Resort

Disney, under the pressure of its employees, criticized Florida's education law that prohibited discussion in classrooms about sexual orientation and gender identities for young students. Governor. Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor, began calling the company “Woke Disney” and vowed to show them who was in charge.

DeSantis wrote at the time in an email for fund-raising, "If Disney is looking to start a fight they picked the wrong person."

At the behest of Mr. DeSantis', Florida legislators have taken a number of hostile measures against Disney, the largest taxpayer in the state. In February they took away Disney's ability to govern its 25,000-acre park as if it was a county. Last week, Mr. DeSantis revealed plans to require Disney to adhere to new regulations regarding ride inspection.

Disney has been quietly protecting itself and angering the governor and his supporters. Disney decided to take action on Wednesday. The company filed a First Amendment suit in federal court against Mr. DeSantis, and the five-member board overseeing government services at Disney World, alleging "a targeted government retaliation."

Disney's complaint to the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of Florida stated that "in America, you cannot be punished for speaking your opinion." Disney had criticized Parental Rights in Educational law, which opponents dubbed "Don't Say Gay", which prohibited classroom discussion about sexual orientation and gender identification for students up to the third grade. DeSantis' administration has recently extended the ban to Grade 12.

The lawsuit accused DeSantis' of a "relentless" campaign "to weaponize government powers against Disney as a retaliation to expressing a certain political opinion." This campaign, it added, "threatens Disney's operations, threatens its economic future and violates Disney’s constitutional rights."

Taryn Feske, spokeswoman for DeSantis called the lawsuit a "yet again unfortunate example" of their desire to undermine the will and law of Florida voters. She also said, "We do not know of any legal rights that a business has to run its own government, or to maintain special privileges that are not enjoyed by other businesses within the state."

Disney and Florida were never bitter enemies until a few years ago. Since 1967, when Florida's Republican leaders granted Disney the right to govern its own property to encourage the construction of a theme park as an incentive, the company has enjoyed a harmonious relationship with the Florida governors. Disney has made generous political contributions. Disney's real influence was in the form jobs and economic impact. Disney World is America's largest employer - approximately 75,000 people work there - and it attracts over 50 million visitors annually, boosting Florida's vital tourism economy.

Disney disclosed that it paid and collected $1.2 billion of state and local taxes by 2022. According to the company, it has allocated $17 billion in expansion expenditures at the resort for the next decade. This growth will create 13,000 additional jobs.

DeSantis's conflict with Disney has been a national event, partly because he is one of the leading Republican candidates for president (although he still hasn't declared an official bid). His relentlessness in his attacks on Disney has been criticized by potential presidential opponents. Last week, former president Donald J. Trump posted on Truth Social his social media website that "this is all so unnecessary. A political STUNT".

Daniel M. Petrocelli is a highly-skilled Los Angeles litigator who filed the suit in Tallahassee for Disney. In 2016, Mr. Petrocelli represented Mr. Trump in a class action fraud case brought against the now-defunct Trump University.

Disney's case has been assigned to Mark E. Walker. He is the chief judge of the Northern District of Florida. Judge Walker has experience in First Amendment cases. He is known for his stinging decisions and was appointed by President Barack Obama. He gave a win to University of Florida Professors last year by saying that they couldn't be banned from giving expert testimony in suits against the state.

The complaint stated that "Disney regrets it has reached this point." "The company tried to de-escalate this matter for almost a year and tried several times to start a productive dialog with the DeSantis Administration. The company has no other choice after exhausting all efforts to find a solution.

Disney filed its complaint just minutes after Mr. DeSantis appointed a board to oversee Disney World that nullified the two agreements which gave Disney a large amount of control over the expansion of the resort complex. Daniel Langley, the general counsel of the board, had presented evidence that Disney was guilty of "self-dealing", "procedural inconscionability", and other misconduct when it pushed through the agreements this year. Langley claimed that Disney violated Florida laws in many ways, among them by not fully informing the public about its actions.

Disney is allowed to build a 5th theme park, 14,000 new hotel rooms and 3 smaller parks under one of the agreements. One agreement restricts use of adjacent land, such as strip clubs. Disney World has already four theme parks, 2 water parks, 18 Disney hotels, a mall, and a 220-acre sporting complex.

Disney's lawsuit referred to the board's actions as "patently retaliatory", "patently anti-business" and "patently unconstitutional". Disney has described the agreements repeatedly as "appropriate", and they were reached in public meetings advertised by The Orlando Sentinel.

A 56-year old special tax district, which includes Disney World, is at the heart of the battle between Mr. DeSantis vs. Disney. The district turned the property into a county and gave Disney unprecedented control over road maintenance, fire protection, police, waste management, energy production, development planning, bond issuance, and development planning.

Florida has hundreds similar special tax district. One district covers The Villages - a massive senior living community located northwest of Orlando. One covers Daytona International Speedway, as well as the surrounding area.

In an effort to limit the autonomy of the Disney company, legislators decided in February to allow the governor the power to appoint a Disney district oversight board. The appointees discovered, when they reported to duty, that the previous Disney-controlled board approved the development agreements and restrictive covenants. This limited the new board's powers for decades.

Both were furious. He suggested a number of punitive measures against Disney. These included reappraising Disney World's value for property tax levies and imposing tolls along the roads leading to Disney World.

He said that at a news conference on April 17, "You might want to create a park or try and do more amusements parks. Someone even suggested, you may need another prison."

He also asked Florida's Chief Inspector General to investigate Disney’s attempts to circumvent his power.

Mr. DeSantis, his allies and others have repeatedly claimed that their actions were aimed at putting Disney "on a level playing field" with the other theme park operators of the state. Universal Orlando, SeaWorld Busch Gardens, and Legoland, however, do not have an oversight board controlled by the Governor. According to the governor's remarks, only Disney World would be subjected to additional inspections of ride safety.

Robert A. Iger is the chief executive of Disney. He has called Mr. DeSantis' actions "antibusiness" and "antiFlorida". Iger also warned that future investments in Disney World may be put at risk if DeSantis continued to use Disney World as a political target.

At Disney's annual shareholders meeting, Mr. Iger stated that "a company has the same right to freedom as individuals." "The governor was very upset about the position Disney took, and it seems like he has decided to retaliate, including the appointment of a board to oversee the properties, in effect, to punish a business for exercising a constitutional rights. "That seems to be a very wrong thing."