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The Disney Lawsuit Against Florida: Free Speech Rights, Retaliation, and Government Powers

Lindokuhle Mkhize

Lindokuhle Mkhize

02 November 20234 min read

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Disney lawsuit

Disney warns of potential consequences if Gov. Ron DeSantis wins his federal lawsuit, referred to as the “Disney lawsuit” against Florida. The company claims that other entities supporting a "disfavored viewpoint" may face punishment. In court papers and documents filed in Tallahassee, Disney argues that the First Amendment's free speech protections apply even when it conflicts with government powers.

What is the Disney lawsuit about?

The Disney lawsuit against Florida stems from DeSantis' allegedly unconstitutional takeover of Walt Disney World's governing district. On April 22, 2022, The state Legislature went on to pass a law, signed by DeSantis, to revoke Disney's long-held special tax district in Florida. This is in response to Disney's public opposition to a state law prohibiting classroom lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity in early grades. This law, championed by DeSantis, prompted the entertainment giant to take legal action.

Disney's Allegations and First Amendment Rights

The dispute between Disney and DeSantis started last year when Disney, under then-CEO Bob Chapek, opposed a new legislation titled the Parental Rights in Education Act, which sought to eliminate discussions of sexuality or gender identity in some K-12 classrooms. Critics denounced the legislation as the "Don't Say Gay'' bill, a name its supporters reject.

According to Disney, the district, previously controlled by Disney supporters, was swiftly taken over by DeSantis appointees, resulting in the creation of the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District. Disney claims this move was a form of retaliation to punish them for dissenting views. Disputing this violation of their First Amendment rights, Disney argues that the company's free speech rights should be protected, regardless of opposing government powers.

The district has “failed to produce a single document for nearly two months following Disney’s requests, broke commitments to agreed-upon deadlines, and remains in possession of discovery that Disney needs to develop its summary judgment opposition,” Disney said in court papers.

Implications of the lawsuit

In court documents, Disney warns that dismissing their First Amendment lawsuit and a victory for DeSantis could set a dangerous precedent, allowing for further punishment of entities expressing “disfavored viewpoints”. The company argues that drawing a line in this case is crucial to protecting free speech and preventing similar retaliatory actions against other organizations.

Governor DeSantis and defense arguments

Previously, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis responded to the Disney lawsuit by filing a motion to dismiss the case, asserting that both he and the secretary of Florida's Department of Economic Opportunity were "immune" from the suit. In the motion, obtained by ABC News, DeSantis' attorneys stated:

"Neither the Governor nor the Secretary enforces any laws at issue, so Disney lacks standing to sue them."

They further argued that DeSantis "is entitled to legislative immunity, which shields both governors' and legislators' actions in the proposal, formulation, and passage of legislation.”

The Governor questioned the basis of the lawsuit in April saying "I think it's political."

These statements from DeSantis and his legal team highlight their position that the lawsuit lacked merit and that the Governor's actions were protected by legislative immunity.

Governor Ron DeSantis, along with other defendants, including a state agency and the DeSantis-appointed board members of the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, argue in court papers that the Disney lawsuit is meritless and that they should be immune from liability. Their defense contests the claims made by Disney.

The lawsuit now focuses on the company's claim that DeSantis and his allies allegedly retaliated against Disney for exercising its right to free speech under the First Amendment.

"A targeted campaign of government retaliation—orchestrated at every step by Governor DeSantis as punishment for Disney's protected speech—now threatens Disney's business operations, jeopardizes its economic future in the region, and violates its constitutional rights," the lawsuit reads.

In August, DeSantis said in a CNBC interview he had "moved on" from his battle with Disney, saying that Disney should "drop the lawsuit" it had filed claiming a "targeted campaign of government retaliation" by his administration, which he has denied.

State court battles and counterclaims

In addition to the federal Disney lawsuit against Florida, the company is also engaged in litigation in state court in Orlando with the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District. The conflict revolves around agreements previously signed by Disney supporters on the district's board, granting the company control over design and construction at Disney World. 

The new DeSantis appointees argue that these agreements limited their authority and have asked the court to nullify them. In response, Disney has filed counterclaims seeking validation and enforcement of the board-signed agreements, specifically concerning design and construction control and protection of its intellectual property.

Significant implications for free speech

The outcome of the Disney lawsuit against Florida and Governor Ron DeSantis could have significant implications for free speech and the ability of individual and corporate entities to express dissenting views without fear of retaliation. 

Disney argues that a victory for DeSantis in this Disney lawsuit in Florida could signal the erosion of First Amendment rights and may subject other organizations to similar consequences for expressing disfavored or opposing viewpoints that do not align with the government's. The case also involves related disputes in state and federal court regarding design and construction control and protection of Disney's intellectual property.

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Lindokuhle Mkhize, a skilled creative copywriter and content lead at Trademarkia, brings a wealth of experience in driving innovation and managing teams. With previous success in starting and growing the Innovation and Marketing department at her former creative agency, Lindokuhle boasts expertise in leadership and delivering compelling content. Based in South Africa, Lindokuhle's work focuses on key themes of creativity, effective communication, and strategic marketing.