Disney sued DeSantis over control of its Florida resort

Last year, under pressure from its employees, Disney criticized a Florida education law banning classroom discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity for young students. Almost immediately, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis called the company “Vogue Disney” and promised to show who’s boss.

“If Disney wanted to pick a fight, they picked the wrong person,” said Mr. DeSantis wrote in a fundraising email at the time.

Since then, Florida legislators, including Mr. At DeSantis’ urging, they targeted Disney — the state’s largest taxpayer — with various hostile actions. In February, they ended Disney’s ability to self-manage the 25,000-acre resort as a district. Last week, Mr. DeSantis announced plans to subject Disney to new ride inspection regulations.

Enraging the governor and his allies, Disney quietly maneuvered to protect himself. On Wednesday, however, the company decided enough was enough: Disney filed a First Amendment suit Overseeing government services at Disney World in federal court, Mr. Against DeSantis and the five-member panel, it calls it a “targeted campaign of government retaliation.”

“In the United States, the government cannot punish you for speaking your mind,” Disney said in its complaint, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida. Disney has criticized the Parents’ Rights in Education Act, which opponents have labeled “don’t tell gay” and bans classroom discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity for students through third grade. The DeSantis administration recently Expanded the ban Up to class 12th.

Mr. DeSantis charged. The campaign, he said, “now threatens Disney’s business operations, harms its economic future in the region and violates its constitutional rights.”

Mr. Taryn Fenske, a spokesman for DeSantis, said the case was “another unfortunate example of their belief in undermining the will of Florida voters and acting outside the bounds of the law.” He added, “We know of no legal right that requires a corporation to run its own government or maintain special privileges that other businesses in the state do not have.”

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A short time ago, it would have been unthinkable for Disney and Florida to be such bitter enemies. Since 1967, when the state’s Republican leaders gave Disney the right to the self-governing property as an incentive to build a theme park, the company and Florida governors have gotten along, for the most part, amicably. Disney has always made huge political contributions. But its real influence came in the form of jobs and economic impact: Disney World is the nation’s largest single-site employer — about 75,000 employees work there — and attracts 50 million guests annually, boosting Florida’s all-important tourism economy.

Disney paid a total of $1.2 billion in state and local taxes in 2022, according to company disclosures. The company recently said it has earmarked $17 billion for expansion spending at the resort over the next decade, which will create an additional 13,000 jobs at the company.

Mr. The conflict between DeSantis and Disney has become a national spectacle because he is a leading Republican presidential contender (although he has not officially announced a bid). He has drawn criticism from potential presidential rivals for his relentless anti-Disney stance. Former President Donald J. Trump wrote last week on his social media site, Truth Social.

Daniel M. Petrocelli, a high-powered Los Angeles attorney, filed the suit in Tallahassee on Disney’s behalf. In 2016, Mr. Petrocelli Attorney Mr.

Disney’s case was assigned to Mark E. Walker, presiding judge for the Northern District of Florida. Judge Walker, known for his tough rulings and appointed by President Barack Obama, has experience in First Amendment cases. Last year, he dealt a blow to University of Florida professors who said they could not be barred from providing expert testimony in cases against the state.

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“Disney regrets that it has come to this point,” the complaint said. “The company has been trying to escalate the matter for nearly a year, making several attempts to spark a constructive dialogue with DeSantis management. But after efforts to find a solution had been exhausted, the company had no choice.

Mr. To oversee Disney World. Disney filed its complaint minutes after a panel appointed by DeSantis canceled the two contracts. The nominees rescinded the contracts after the board’s general counsel, Daniel Langley, presented evidence to push them this year as Disney’s “self-dealing” and “impractical unconscionability.” Disney violated Florida law in several ways, Mr. Langley said, including failing to fully notify the public of the actions it took.

One of the deals gives Disney the ability to build 14,000 additional hotel rooms, a fifth theme park and three smaller parks. another, restricting the use of land; For example, no strip clubs. (Disney World already has four theme parks, two water parks, 18 Disney-owned hotels, a barangay and a 220-acre sports complex.)

Disney’s lawsuit called the board’s action “generally retaliatory, patently uncommercial, and patently unconstitutional.” Disney has repeatedly described the deals as “appropriate” and attacked them in public meetings publicized in the Orlando Sentinel.

Mr. At the center of the fight between DeSantis and Disney is a 56-year-old special tax district that includes Disney World. The county made the property its own district, giving Disney unusual control over fire protection, policing, waste management, energy generation, road maintenance, bond issuance and development planning.

Florida has hundreds of similar special tax districts. Includes The Villages, a large senior-living community northwest of Orlando. The other covers Daytona International Speedway and the surrounding area.

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In February, lawmakers decided to allow the governor to appoint an oversight board to the Disney district in an effort to reduce the agency’s autonomy. However, when the appointees reported to work, the previous, Disney-controlled board approved the development agreement and restrictive covenants, limiting the new board’s power for decades.

Mr. They were just as angry as DeSantis. He responded by recommending various potential punitive measures against Disney, including reassessing the resort’s value for property tax purposes, imposing tolls on roads leading to Disney World, and developing land near the resort’s entrances.

“Maybe build a state park, try to build more amusement parks — you might need another state prison,” one said at an April 17 news conference.

He also asked Florida’s chief inspector general to investigate Disney’s attempts to evade his authority.

Mr. DeSantis and his allies have repeatedly characterized their actions as putting Disney on a “level playing field” with other theme park operators in the state. But Universal Orlando, SeaWorld, Busch Gardens and Legoland do not have governor-controlled oversight boards. Based on the governor’s comments, the state’s other major theme parks will not undergo additional ride safety inspections — only Disney World.

Disney CEO Robert A. Iger has called Mr. DeSantis “anti-business” and “anti-Florida” for his actions. If the governor uses Disney as a political cudgel, Mr. Iger identified.

“A corporation has the same right to freedom of speech as individuals,” said Mr. Iger said at Disney’s annual shareholder meeting this month. “The governor is very angry at the position Disney has taken, and it looks like he’s decided to retaliate against us, including naming a new board to oversee the property, seeking to punish a company for exercising a constitutional right. That seems very wrong to me.”

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