The Walt Disney Company is suing Florida Governor Ron DeSantis alleging that he and his political allies have discriminated against the company (pdf) for exercising its constitutionally protected right to free speech.
Disney’s lawsuit is the culmination of a lengthy feud between the company, which operates the Walt Disney World resort in Central Florida, and DeSantis, a right-wing firebrand and likely contender for the Republican presidential nomination in the 2024 election.
Since 1967, Disney has enjoyed special legal status under Florida law, which allows it to levy taxes and run its own police and fire departments, water and septic systems, and more. But in 2022, the Florida legislature voted to annul Disney’s legal status. Instead, the governor hand-picked a new supervisory board to govern the 25,000 acre land traditionally controlled by Disney. All this was seemingly in response to Disney’s public opposition to Florida’s Don’t Say Gay law, which prohibits discussion of gender identity and sexual orientation in public school classrooms.
On Wednesday, the DeSantis-appointed board voted to nullify an agreement that would have given Disney expansive and long-lasting control over the developmental rights of its land. Disney escalated this year-long back-and-forth flame war with DeSantis mere minutes after the board voted, alleging a “targeted campaign of government retaliation—orchestrated at every step by Governor DeSantis as punishment for Disney’s protected speech.”
Disney’s legal claims against Ron DeSantis
In its complaint filed Wednesday in federal district court in Tallahassee, Disney alleged that Florida unconstitutionally canceled its contract with the company, violated its Fifth Amendment protection against unlawful seizure of property without compensation, violated its due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment, and violated its First Amendment right to free speech. (The Supreme Court has long held that companies enjoy speech rights under the Constitution.)
On First Amendment grounds, Disney claims that the DeSantis-picked board’s decisions were “motivated by retaliatory intent” over its opposition to the Don’t Say Gay bill, citing DeSantis’ numerous critiques of Disney’s “woke agenda” in its complaint.
“Governor DeSantis has reaffirmed, again and again, that the State campaign to punish Disney for its speech about House Bill 1557 has been a coordinated and deliberate one from the start,” Disney wrote.
Responding to a request for comment from Quartz, Taryn Fenske, communications director for Governor DeSantis’s office, wrote: “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 of the bounds of the law.”