TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Disney rejected Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ recent request for immunity from their legal feud Wednesday, with the media conglomerate criticizing the governor and presidential candidate for evading “responsibility for his actions.”
It’s the latest salvo in a legal battle that’s been ongoing since April when the theme park giant filed a suit against the governor in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida. The broader battle began the year before, when Disney spoke out against the Parental Rights in Education Act, dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” by critics, which restricts instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in schools.
“The Governor seeks to evade responsibility for his actions on a narrower ground, asserting that a governor cannot be held officially liable for implementing, administering, and enforcing state laws that punish residents for political statements violating a state-prescribed speech code,” company attorneys wrote in a legal filing Wednesday.
DeSantis and his GOP legislative allies responded with actions Disney says were retaliatory and a violation of its free speech rights, such as the governor’s takeover of the company’s special taxing district, previously called the Reedy Creek Improvement District.
Since the renaming of the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, the ramifications of that takeover are still far from settled, even outside the courts.
On Wednesday, the district’s new, governor-appointed board, encumbered with litigation costs due to the Disney dispute and other start-up expenses, said it’s eyeing cutting $8 million used to pay off-duty law enforcement officers who exclusively patrol Disney properties. Chairman Martin Garcia called it “wasteful spending.”
The board, along with acting Secretary of the Department of Economic Opportunity Meredith Ivey, is also named in the suit. It’s filed a suit of its own against Disney in state court.
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Yearlong dispute fueled by Disney lawsuit
Since the introduction of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill last year, the legislation drew national controversy and more than 150 major companies signed a Human Rights Campaign letter “vocally opposing” the anti-LGBTQ legislation.
The Walt Disney Company followed suit and publicly opposed the law after its employees staged walkouts. The entertainment goliath’s former chief executive Bob Chapek said the company was pausing political contributions in Florida and was working to overturn the law.
“If Disney wants to pick a fight, they chose the wrong guy,” DeSantis responded in a fundraising email.
The feud was further fueled in April when the company sued the governor for using his authority to take away the company’s ability to self-govern its amusement parks in Orlando. Disney also claimed that the governor was retaliating against the company because of its criticism of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
Last month, DeSantis’ attorneys asked a federal judge for immunity from the case, which would drop the lawsuit and release him from further legal action, liability, or punishment.
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In interviews, writings, and at the podium, DeSantis has repeatedly connected the legislative crackdown on Disney with what he calls their “woke” criticism of his signature parents rights law. But at other times and in his legal arguments, he said those efforts were focused on fairness, putting Disney on “a level playing field with every other business in Florida.”
Beyond First Amendment infringement allegations, Disney claims the defendants additionally stepped on the Constitution by violating its contract with it and taking its property without adequate compensation. Disney accuses them of doing this without “legitimate state interest,” thus violating the 14th Amendment’s Due Process clause.
DeSantis’ attorneys call all this “meritless.”
In a recent filing urging the court to dismiss the case or, “at minimum,” dismiss the claims against the governor, DeSantis’ lawyers say the actions were not about retaliation. Rather, those actions, they say, were about making “overdue” reform on a special taxing district that gave the company “unprecedented power to govern itself.”
They called the lawsuit a “last-ditch power grab” — and one the governor has legal immunity from.
But Disney disputes that.
“This case presents the fundamental question whether the Governor and the State can escape accountability for their open defiance of our Nation’s most cherished liberties,” its attorneys wrote. “The motion seeks dismissal on Article III standing, sovereign immunity, and legislative-immunity grounds, but those principles have no application here.”