Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ very public feud with the Walt Disney Co. entered a new phase this week, when the entertainment conglomerate filed a lawsuit claiming that the governor and his administration violated the company’s First Amendment rights.
Disney, which employs 75,000 people in a cluster of theme parks and hotels in central Florida, said that a series of new restrictions placed on the company were meant to retaliate against it for public criticism of one of DeSantis’ key legislative initiatives. The legislation, commonly known as the “Don’t Say Gay” law, restricts the ability of teachers in Florida schools to discuss issues of sexuality and gender identity.
In a series of moves beginning last year, the Florida legislature — at DeSantis’ bidding — stripped the company of the ability to self-govern the land on which its parks and hotels sit, changed the rules governing ride-safety inspections, and took other actions targeting the company. The changes appear to have applied only to Disney, and not to other self-governing districts and theme parks in the state.
The fight with Disney has helped keep DeSantis in the news ahead of what is expected to be an announcement of his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination later this spring. DeSantis is currently second in polls of likely GOP primary voters, trailing former President Donald Trump by a significant margin.
This week, a new board appointed to oversee the district where Disney is located moved to void development agreements its predecessor had struck with the company. Those deals, agreed to shortly before the old board was replaced, would have significantly limited the new board’s power over the company.
Within minutes of the vote, Disney announced that it had filed a lawsuit claiming unlawful retaliation.
“A targeted campaign of government retaliation — orchestrated at every step by Governor DeSantis as punishment for Disney’s protected speech — now threatens Disney’s business operations, jeopardizes its economic future in the region, and violates its constitutional rights,” the suit charges.
For his part, DeSantis on Thursday claimed that the lawsuit lacks merit.
“Do you want one company to have their own fiefdom, or do you want everyone to live under the same laws?” he said to reporters in Israel while participating in an overseas trade mission. “The days of putting one company on a pedestal with no accountability are over in the state of Florida.”
The battle between the company and the state began last year, while the state legislature was debating the Parental Rights in Education Act which restricts the ability of teachers to discuss sexuality or gender identity with young children. The law has since been expanded to cover all children through high school.
The language in the bill made it unclear whether, for example, a gay teacher with a same-sex spouse could mention his or her marital status to students, earning it the “Don’t Say Gay” nickname from critics.
After taking an unclear stance on the legislation at the start, Disney’s then-CEO Bob Chapek responded to criticism from the company’s employee base by issuing a strong denunciation of the legislation, saying that it should never have been signed into law, and pledging that the company would work toward its repeal.
The move angered DeSantis and his allies in the legislature. The governor immediately began attacking the company in his public pronouncements as “woke” and pledged to “fight back.” In a fundraising email to supporters he wrote, “If Disney wants to pick a fight, they chose the wrong guy.”
Within days, Republican state legislator Stephen Roach made it clear that lawmakers were considering action that would eliminate an agreement struck in 1967 to allow Disney broad authority to govern the land on which its parks and hotels are located, known as the Reedy Creek Improvement District (RCID).
Roach seemed to concede that the change was to punish the company for its complaints about the Parental Rights in Education law.
“If Disney wants to embrace woke ideology, it seems fitting that they should be regulated by Orange County,” he said. (The RCID was carved out of land partly in Orange County and partly in Osceola County.)
Over the past few weeks, DeSantis has made other public comments suggesting that he is looking for additional ways to punish Disney.
In recent public comments, he suggested that he and his staff are considering new taxes on the company’s hotels, tolls on the roads that visitors use to travel to the park, and building other projects on nearby state-owned property.
At one news conference, DeSantis floated the idea of locating a new state prison on nearby land. “Who knows? I just think the possibilities are endless,” he said.
First Amendment experts contacted by VOA said that Disney appears to have powerful arguments behind its assertion that DeSantis and the legislature have engaged in unlawful retaliation against protected speech.
“Disney has a quite strong claim here,” RonNell Andersen Jones, a professor of law at the University of Utah, said in an email. “First Amendment doctrine makes clear that it offends the Constitution when [the] government takes actions to retaliate for speech or expressive positions.”
Gregory Magarian, a professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, agreed.
“It is clear — axiomatic, obvious — that if the government retaliates against a speaker for what they say, that is a violation of the First Amendment,” he told VOA.
Magarian said that in order to overcome Disney’s argument, the state would have to argue that the actions it took against Disney were the result of public policy preferences, and were not meant to punish the company.
“My sense is that the public record, and what DeSantis has said and what legislators have said, will make that a fairly uphill climb,” he said.
DeSantis, broadly seen as a rising star in the Republican Party, has come under fire from some of his erstwhile political allies in recent days over his unrelenting assault on Disney.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, the most powerful Republican politician in Washington, on Thursday criticized the governor’s approach.
“This is a big employer inside Florida,” he said. “I think the governor should sit down with them. I don’t think the idea of building a prison next to a place that you bring your family is the best idea. I think it’d be much better if you sat down and solved the problems.”
Former President Trump, writing on Truth Social, a social network owned by his company, also piled on.
“Disney’s next move will be the announcement that no more money will be invested in Florida because of the Governor — In fact, they could even announce a slow withdrawal or sale of certain properties, or the whole thing. Watch!” he wrote. “That would be a killer.”