Moments after a Ron DeSantis-appointed board voted to strip the Walt Disney Company’s control of its Florida resort, the company filed a federal lawsuit against the governor and state officials alleging a “targeted campaign of government retaliation.”
The lawsuit follows the governor’s state takeover of the Reedy Creek Improvement District, now the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, made up of conservative activists and DeSantis loyalists, a move that followed Florida Republicans’ punitive measures against the company after its public opposition to what opponents called the state’s “Don’t Say Gay” law.
Disney’s lawsuit, filed in US District Court on 26 April, accuses the governor’s administration of waging a “relentless campaign to weaponize government power against Disney in retaliation for expressing a political viewpoint.”
The lawsuit claims Mr DeSantis’ effort “threatens Disney’s business operations, jeopardizes its economic future in the region and violates its constitutional rights.”
Despite public notice of proposed changes, DeSantis’s appointees were outraged to find Reedy Creek board approved new agreements before it was dissolved to make major changes at its sprawling theme park campus – changes that would remain in effect for years to come.
On 26 April, the board voted to nullify those agreements, the “latest strike” from Mr DeSantis, according to the lawsuit.
“At the governor’s bidding, the state’s oversight board has purported to ‘void’ publicly noticed and duly agreed development contracts, which had laid the foundation for billions of Disney’s investment dollars and thousands of jobs,” the lawsuit alleges. “This government action was patently retaliatory, patently anti-business, and patently unconstitutional.”
The lawsuit also quotes the governor’s other retaliatory statements directed towards the company, including weighing potential new taxes and tolls on its hotels and roads and the possibility of a “state prison” near the parks.
“Who knows? I just think the possibilities are endless,” he said,” the lawsuit quotes the governor as saying.
Following weeks of pressure from LGBT+ advocates and Disney employees urging company leadership to publicly lobby against the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill last year, then-CEO Bob Chapek announced that the company would oppose the bill and suspend its political donations in the state.
The “Parental Rights in Education Act” prohibits instruction of “sexual orientation or gender identity” from kindergarten through the third grade and any such discussion “that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students” in other grades. The governor recently expanded the law to explicitly extend such restrictions to all grades.
Critics have warned that the broadly written law threatens to freeze classroom speech involving LGBT+ people and issues, from civil rights history lessons to discussion of LGBT+ students, school staff and their families. Following passage of the Florida law, lawmakers across the US and in Congress floated similar legislation, including at least 26 measures in 14 states in current legislative sessions alone.
After Disney’s public objections, Governor DeSantis and members of his administration ignited a feud that escalated to Republican threats to punish Disney’s operations in the state and ultimately resulted in his administration taking control of them.
The municipal district, implemented in 1967, allowed Disney to effectively control its own land use and zoning rules and operate its own public services, including water, sanitation, emergency services and infrastructure maintenance.
With Disney as the primary landowner for the district, the company is largely responsible for all costs of those municipal services that otherwise would fall under the jurisdiction of county and local governments, including the taxpayers who live within them, an arrangement that ostensibly eases the burden from neighbouring counties and places it on one of the largest companies in the world. In effect, Disney taxed itself to foot the district’s bill for its municipal needs.
A statement from the governor’s communications director Taryn Fenske shared with the statement said that “we are unaware of any legal right that a company has to operate its own government or maintain special privileges not held by other businesses in the state.”
“This lawsuit is yet another unfortunate example of their hope to undermine the will of the Florida voters and operate outside the bounds of the law,” the statement added.”
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