Updated Apr 26, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Disney sues DeSantis over alleged "targeted campaign"

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks to a crowd at the North Charleston Coliseum on April 19, 2023.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks to a crowd at the North Charleston Coliseum on April 19, 2023. Photo: Sean Rayford/Getty Images

The Walt Disney Company filed a lawsuit Wednesday against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, alleging the state's actions toward the company amount to a "targeted campaign" of government retaliation.

Why it matters: The lawsuit filed in federal court is the latest escalation in a highly public feud between DeSantis, a potential 2024 presidential contender, and the entertainment giant that shows no signs of abating.

  • The governor-appointed board — whose members are named as defendants — Wednesday voted to nullify earlier agreements that had given Disney authority over most construction near its Orlando resort.
  • In the complaint, Disney said the board's move was "patently retaliatory, patently anti-business, and patently unconstitutional."

The big picture: The standoff between the Republican governor and Disney began after the company publicly denounced Florida's Parental Rights in Education law, which critics dubbed "Don't Say Gay."

  • DeSantis responded with legislation in April 2022 that revoked the special status of Reedy Creek, a municipal district operated by Disney. In late February, he signed a bill transferring control of the district to the state.

Zoom in: Disney's complaint accuses the DeSantis administration, in part, of violating the company's First Amendment rights, citing the governor's recent statement that the board would hold "Disney accountable."

  • DeSantis often framed his actions against Disney as a triumph against "woke corporatism," devoting a chapter in his recent book, "The Courage to Be Free," to the feud.
  • The complaint heavily references these remarks as evidence of DeSantis' "orchestrated" effort to stifle the company's free speech.

Clay Calvert, a law professor at the University of Florida specializing in the First Amendment, told Axios, "DeSantis might have been his own worst enemy by speaking out" and providing Disney fodder to prove its claim.

  • "Disney has to show that the actions taken by the state of Florida were motivated by a desire to punish Disney for speaking out," and the lawsuit laid out "all the statements, not just by DeSantis, but by others."

What they're saying: Disney, in its suit, alleges the company "finds itself in this regrettable position because it expressed a viewpoint the Governor and his allies did not like." The company, per the suit, "wishes that things could have been resolved a different way."

  • "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," it added.

DeSantis spokesperson Taryn Fenske told Axios the administration is "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."

Catch up quick: After DeSantis installed political allies onto the board earlier this year, members discovered previously made covenant agreements that restricted the state's ability to rein in development at Disney World.

  • Last week, DeSantis called for the agreements made under the former Disney-allied board to be voided.
  • He also encouraged lawmakers to revoke other privileges Disney holds in Florida, including its monorail system's exemption from state inspections.

Of note: DeSantis' critics, including former President Donald Trump, blasted his handling of the situation.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional details and developments.

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