Metro Weekly

Judge Tosses Disney’s Lawsuit Against Ron DeSantis

A federal judge found that the Walt Disney Company had no standing to sue the governor for pushing to revoke Disney's special tax status.

Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida – Photo: Guillermo GR, via Unsplash

A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit brought by Disney against Florida officials, including Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, claiming that lawmakers retaliated against the company for criticizing a “parental rights” measure that has been dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor, of the Northern District of Florida, ruled on January 31 that Disney lacked legal standing to sue DeSantis and the secretary of Florida’s Commerce Department for violating its First Amendment rights.

Winsor also found that Disney’s claims “fail on the merits” against the members of the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, who oversee the special tax district that makes economic development and public service funding decisions for over 25,000 acres of Disney-owned properties where Walt Disney World’s theme parks are located.

Disney claimed in its lawsuit that Republican lawmakers, at DeSantis’s urging, dissolved the old tax district, known as the Reedy Creek Improvement District, and replaced the board overseeing that district with five members, appointed by DeSantis and confirmed by the Florida Senate — effectively stripping away Disney’s ability to govern itself, as it previously had been allowed to do, unfettered, since 1967.

At the time, critics accused lawmakers of seeking to have board members influence not only Disney’s development decisions, but programming choices, particularly with respect to LGBTQ content.

Winsor found that while Disney had standing to sue the oversight board members, the company had failed to prove it had been, or would be, harmed by any actions — whether in the past or the future — taken by the oversight board.

Because there was no “injury,” to speak in legal parlance, Winsor found no reason to issue an injunction blocking the board from taking actions or blocking Republican officials from attempting to influence any board decisions.

Additionally, Disney acknowledged in its arguments that the Florida Legislature is empowered to determine the structure of Florida’s special improvement districts, regardless of the alleged rationale behind lawmakers’ actions.

Therefore, despite Disney’s claim that policymakers were motivated to retaliate against the company for opposing the “Don’t Say Gay” law, because the special tax district reorganization law was passed by duly elected representatives acting within the scope of their power, Disney cannot claim its First Amendment rights were violated.

“At the end of the day, under the law of this Circuit, ‘courts shouldn’t look to a law’s legislative history to find an illegitimate motivation for an otherwise constitutional statute,'” Winsor wrote. “Because that is what Disney seeks here, its claim fails as a matter of law.”

The ruling does not affect a separate lawsuit by Disney seeking to reverse the oversight board’s decision to reverse an economic development agreement approved by the former Reedy Creek district board.

A Disney spokesperson slammed the ruling as wrongheaded, telling CNBC in a statement, “This is an important case with serious implications for the rule of law, and it will not end here. 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.”

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