In a win for Gov. Ron DeSantis, a federal judge Wednesday dismissed a lawsuit alleging that the state unconstitutionally retaliated against Walt Disney Parks and Resorts because of the company’s opposition to a controversial education law.
U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor issued a 17-page ruling that said Disney did not have legal standing to pursue the lawsuit against DeSantis and state Commerce Secretary J. Alex Kelly. He also rejected claims against the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, which the Legislature and DeSantis created last year to largely govern an area that includes Disney’s Central Florida properties.
In dismissing the claims against the district, Winsor cited legal precedents preventing First Amendment retaliation claims against “facially constitutional” laws. He said the disputed laws do not mention Disney and that their effects would go beyond Disney.
“The laws are directed at a special development district in which Disney operates,” Winsor wrote. “But as Disney acknowledges, it is not the district’s only landowner, and other landowners within the district are affected by the same laws.”
Also, Winsor rejected the idea that he should look at the motivations of lawmakers in passing the changes. He pointed to two precedents from the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which hears cases from Florida.
“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.’ Because that is what Disney seeks here, its claim fails as a matter of law,” Winsor wrote.
The lawsuit stemmed primarily from a decision last year by DeSantis and the Republican-controlled Legislature to replace the former Reedy Creek Improvement District with the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District. The decades-old Reedy Creek district was closely aligned with Disney, while DeSantis appoints the new district’s board.
The decision came after Disney officials in 2022 opposed a new state law that restricted instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in schools. The lawsuit, filed last year, alleged that the state retaliated against Disney in violation of speech rights.
Disney attorneys argued in the lawsuit that it “is a clear violation of Disney’s federal First Amendment rights for the state to inflict a concerted campaign of retaliation because the company expressed an opinion with which the government disagreed” on the education issue.
“Disney regrets that it has come to this,” the lawsuit said. “But having exhausted efforts to seek a resolution, the company is left with no choice but to file this lawsuit to protect its cast members, guests and local development partners from a relentless campaign to weaponize government power against Disney in retaliation for expressing a political viewpoint unpopular with certain state officials.”
DeSantis’ office celebrated Wednesday’s ruling, with spokesman Jeremy Redfern saying in a statement that the “days of Disney controlling its own government (district) and being placed above the law are long gone.”
“The federal court’s decision made it clear that Gov. 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,” Redfern said. “In short — as long predicted, case dismissed.”
Similarly, Charles Cooper, an attorney for the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, issued a statement that said Winsor “applied clear precedent to reject Disney’s claim that it, rather Florida’s Legislature and her governor, gets to choose the officials who will serve on its local government body. Disney may own the land in the district, but it does not own the government.”
In finding that Disney did not have standing to sue DeSantis, Winsor wrote that allegations that the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District board operates “under the ‘governor’s thumb,’ are conclusory.”
“Disney has not alleged any specific actions the new board took (or will take) because of the governor’s alleged control,” the ruling said. “In fact, Disney has not alleged any specific injury from any board action. Its alleged injury … is its operating under a board it cannot control. That injury would exist whether or not the governor controlled the board, meaning an injunction precluding the governor from influencing the board would not redress Disney’s asserted injury.”
While the federal lawsuit was tossed out, Disney and the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District continue to battle in a separate case in Orange County circuit court.
–Jim Saunders, News Service of Florida