Disney's Lawsuit Puts Ron DeSantis in Political Checkmate

April 26, 2023, 12:59 PM · It's happening. The legal battle more than a year in the making is now underway in federal court. Disney Parks is suing Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.

Disney filed this morning in United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida. In the 77-page filing, Disney argues on First Amendment grounds that DeSantis and his Central Florida Tourism Oversight District illegally targeted and retaliated against Disney for statements that the company's leadership made against the so-called "Don't Say Gay" law.

If you've not been following, DeSantis and the Florida Legislature voted to dissolve the Disney-controlled Reedy Creek Improvement District that governs the Walt Disney World Resort after now-former CEO Bob Chapek belatedly expressed opposition to "Don't Say Gay," after intense criticism from Disney cast members and fans. [Disney Parks Make Diversity Pledge As Employees Walk Out] But before the RCID went away, its board approved an agreement with Disney Parks that gave the company almost unlimited rights to develop the Walt Disney World Resort property for what could be decades to come. [Here's How Disney Played Florida's Ron DeSantis]

The DeSantis-controlled replacement for Reedy Creek, the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, has voted to overturn that agreement, with assistance from the Florida Legislature. In its lawsuit today, Disney is asking the court to rule that the legislation that dissolved Reedy Creek and created the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District were unlawful and unenforceable.

"It is a clear violation of Disney’s federal constitutional rights under the Contracts Clause, the Takings Clause, the Due Process Clause, and the First Amendment for the State to inflict a concerted campaign of retaliation because the Company expressed an opinion with which the government disagreed. And it is a clear violation of these rights for the CFTOD board to declare its own legally binding contracts void and unenforceable. Disney thus seeks relief from this Court in order to carry out its long-held business plans," Disney said in its filing.

"Disney finds itself in this regrettable position because it expressed a viewpoint the Governor and his allies did not like. Disney wishes that things could have been resolved a different way. But Disney also knows that it is fortunate to have the resources to take a stand against the State’s retaliation—a stand smaller businesses and individuals might not be able to take when the State comes after them for expressing their own views. In America, the government cannot punish you for speaking your mind."

Here is the entire filing, if you would like to read for yourself.

Okay, now for my analysis.

Life pro tip: Do not mess with Disney's lawyers. Ever. By framing this as a First Amendment case, Disney is relying in part upon the Citizens United precedent that granted corporations greatly expanded political free speech rights. Disney's strategy now puts DeSantis in direct conflict with the court decision that has done more than anything to funnel massive amounts of cash to him and other Republican politicians across the country.

Can DeSantis find a way to argue that his actions were lawful without putting Citizens United in jeopardy in a potential appeal to the Supreme Court? Disney all but demolished his easiest defense by citing multiple examples of DeSantis and other Florida politicians publicly declaring that the state's actions on Reedy Creek were in direct retaliation against Disney for what it said. It's like the Fox News v. Dominion Voting Systems case all over again - receipts everywhere, for everyone to read.

There is zero chance that DeSantis comes out of this with any political allies anywhere if he moves to challenge Disney's First Amendment rights. But if he does not, it's hard to see how he has much of a case beyond asking the court ignore law and precedent and just rule in his favor.

Update: Here is the response from DeSantis' communications director: "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."

Let's unpack. Technically, Disney did not operate the Reedy Creek Improvement District. Its residents did, through their elected representatives. Disney did maintain effective control of the district because, as its sole landowner, it effectively controlled who lived in the district and therefore could vote for its board. DeSantis' new board actually disenfranchises the residents of the district by eliminating their ability to vote for their representatives on the district board.

Anyway, the "legal right" that the old RCID had to exist was the legislation that Florida passed in the 1960s creating it. If Florida wanted to eliminate the district, it had the right to do that - it just does not have the right to do so as directed retaliation for protected political speech, which is what Disney alleges DeSantis and his allies did. That lies outside the "bounds of the law" established by the U.S. Constitution, as detailed in Disney's filing.

The DeSantis spokesperson's statement, therefore, does not address any of Disney's arguments in its complaint. DeSantis will need to do better in actual court responses and testimony if he is to have any real hope of prevailing in this case.

DeSantis holds no cards here. But his political future depends upon him not losing this case. Therefore, he has no option but to continue to bluff and hope that either Disney makes some unforced error or a partisan court bails him out. Like a chess queen with no safe place to move, DeSantis may be running out of options to escape the trap he tried to set for Disney.

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