Walt Disney Parks and Resorts filed a lawsuit against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his hand-picked oversight board on Wednesday, accusing the Republican presidential candidate for 2024 of using his political power to punish the company for exercising its free speech rights. The lawsuit was filed in federal court just minutes after the board appointed by DeSantis to oversee Disney’s special taxing district sought to reclaim control from the entertainment behemoth, voting to invalidate an agreement reached between Disney and the previous board in February, just before that board’s dissolution.
“What they’ve created is a complete legal shambles, OK?” “It will not work,” said Martin Garcia, chairman of the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District board of supervisors appointed by DeSantis. The moves on Wednesday are the latest escalation in the feud between DeSantis and Disney as DeSantis prepares to run for president in 2024. Disney replied by suing DeSantis, the board, and acting secretary of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity Meredith Ivey, attempting to halt the board’s actions.
According to the lawsuit, Wednesday’s vote is the “latest strike” in “a targeted campaign of government retaliation – orchestrated at every step by Governor DeSantis as punishment for Disney’s protected speech.” According to the complaint, DeSantis’ retribution “now threatens Disney’s business operations, jeopardizes its economic future in the region, and violates its constitutional rights.”
“Disney is in this unfortunate position because it expressed a viewpoint that the Governor and his allies did not agree with.” “Disney wishes things could have been resolved differently,” according to the lawsuit. “However, Disney recognizes that it is fortunate to have the resources to stand up to the State’s retaliation – a stand that smaller businesses and individuals may not be able to take if the State comes after them for expressing their own opinions.” The government cannot penalize you in America for stating your thoughts.
“The board’s action on Wednesday was expected, and board members have previewed its reasoning for why the agreement was unlawful in prior meetings. The board recruited a team of law firms in March to represent the district in “potential legal challenges” with Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, indicating that DeSantis’ appointments expected the fight to go to court. Disney CEO Bob Iger hinted to the firm’s fight against the state earlier this month when he told shareholders that “the company has a right to freedom of speech just like individuals do.”
“The governor became very angry about Disney’s position, and it appears that he has decided to retaliate against us… in effect, to seek to punish a company for exercising a constitutional right,” Iger said. “And that just seems really wrong to me – against any company or individual, but particularly against a company that means so much to the state you live in.” The battle has now moved to the courts, where Disney is seeking an injunction to prevent the board from utilizing the authority granted to it by DeSantis and the Republican-led legislature.
“We are unaware of any legal right that a company has to operate its own government or to maintain special privileges not held by other businesses in the state,” DeSantis communications director Taryn Fenske said. “This lawsuit is yet another unfortunate example of their hope to undermine Florida voters’ will and operate outside the bounds of the law.” The year-long battle has frayed what had long been a cordial relationship between Florida’s government and the state’s most well-known job and tourist draw. DeSantis stated earlier this month that the state could build a prison or a competitive theme park on land owned by Disney for decades.
The Florida governor’s feud with Disney has turned into a flashpoint in the early phases of the Republican presidential primaries for 2024. Former President Donald Trump and a raft of other contenders and possible competitors, including former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, have slammed DeSantis’ moves as anti-business. Following a hearing in which several business owners, including those who own restaurants and bars at Disney World, urged the board to work with Disney, Garcia stated that the board would seek to raise taxes to cover its legal fees in evaluating and combating what he referred to as “eleventh-hour agreements.”
“Because that’s going to cost us money, we’re going to have to raise taxes to pay for that,” Garcia explained. The Central Florida Tourism Oversight District board of supervisors, appointed by DeSantis and packed with his supporters earlier this year, took over the Reedy Creek Improvement District, the special taxing district that gave Disney control over the land surrounding its Central Florida theme parks for half a century.
However, before the DeSantis-appointed board was in place, Disney made an arrangement with the departing board in February that appeared to render the body unable to regulate the entertainment behemoth. For a month, the DeSantis administration was uninformed of the pact and pledged retaliation once it became known.
The agreements Disney struck with the previous board guaranteed the corporation’s development rights throughout the district for the next 30 years and, in some situations, prohibited the board from taking major action without first obtaining consent from the firm. The new board was prohibited from utilizing any of Disney’s “fanciful characters” until “21 years after the death of the last survivor of the descendants of King Charles III, king of England.”
Its development agreement was approved at two public meetings conducted earlier this year, two weeks apart, both of which were covered in the local Orlando newspaper and attended by roughly a dozen residents and members of the media. According to the meeting minutes, no one from the governor’s office was present at either meeting. Daniel Langley, the board’s special general counsel, spoke over the board’s legal justification for nullifying the arrangement struck between Disney and the previous board during Wednesday’s meeting.
He claimed that the board had failed to provide the appropriate public notice of its meetings, and that the agreement had not been legally approved by the district’s two municipalities, Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista. He also claimed that earlier changes to Disney’s long-term comprehensive plan had not been adequately evaluated and approved by those two towns. “The bottom line is that a development agreement has to be approved by the governing body of a jurisdiction, and that didn’t happen from the cities that have jurisdiction,” Langley explained.
Alan Lawson, a former Florida Supreme Court justice hired by the district, stated that “the old board attempted to act without legal authority to act.” “Essentially, this is about what it means to live and work in a country that is governed by the rule of law.” “Everyone must follow the same rules,” he stated. “Disney was openly and legally granted a unique and special privilege – that of temporarily running its own government.” That epoch has passed.” The Reedy Creek Improvement District was established by the state government in 1967, thus givingDisney control over municipal services such as power, water, roads, and fire protection around its Central Florida theme parks, which did not exist prior to Walt Disney and his builders’ arrival. However, the special district also relieved Disney of bureaucratic red tape and reduced the cost of borrowing to finance infrastructure projects around its theme parks, among other substantial benefits.
Though challenged at times, the special agreement was mainly protected by state officials as both Disney and Florida benefited from the tourism boom. The unlikely schism in Florida’s relationship with its most renowned company began last year amid a protracted battle over state laws restricting certain classroom instruction on sexuality and gender identity. Under pressure from his employees, Disney’s then-CEO, Bob Chapek, reluctantly objected to the law, prompting DeSantis to condemn the firm. When DeSantis signed the bill into law, Disney said that it will fight to have it repealed. DeSantis then went after Disney’s unique governing powers.
For DeSantis, who has developed a political identity by fighting toe-to-toe with firms he considers “woke,” the latest development threatens to undermine a fundamental pillar of his narrative as he prepares for a possible presidential candidacy. His new autobiography devotes a full chapter to Disney, and the subject is prominently highlighted in the stump speeches he has delivered across the country in recent weeks.