DeSantis attorneys ask federal judge to dismiss Disney’s free speech lawsuit

Dec 12, 2023, 6:05 AM

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Attorneys for Gov. Ron DeSantis are asking a federal judge on Tuesday to dismiss a free speech lawsuit filed by Disney after the Florida governor took over Walt Disney World’s governing district in retaliation for the company opposing a state law that banned classroom lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity in early grades.

The planned hearing is the first time oral arguments are being made in federal court in Tallahassee over Disney’s claim that DeSantis used state powers to punish the entertainment giant in violation of the First Amendment. The governor’s attorneys are arguing that the case should be dismissed, claiming DeSantis is immune since he doesn’t enforce any of the laws that removed supervision of the government from Disney supporters.

Any decision U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor makes could determine who controls the governing district that performs municipal services such as planning, mosquito control and firefighting in the roughly 40 square miles (100 square kilometers) in central Florida that make up Disney World. Winsor was appointed to the bench by President Donald Trump in 2019.

Disney and DeSantis appointees also are battling in a state court lawsuit in Orlando over control of the district.

DeSantis has argued that the federal lawsuit should be dismissed since Disney lacks standing to file it. Neither the governor nor the secretary of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, who is also named in the lawsuit, have the power to enforce the laws which were passed to revamp the Disney World government and shift control of the district’s board from Disney supporters to the governor’s appointees, according to DeSantis.

Also named in the federal lawsuit are the the district’s board members who DeSantis appointed earlier this year.

In asking the judge to deny DeSantis’ motion to dismiss, Disney has accused DeSantis and his appointees of using political institutions to punish disfavored viewpoints.

“That premise is not just legally unsupported, it is profoundly un-American,” Disney said in court papers.

The feud between DeSantis and Disney started last year after the entertainment giant publicly opposed the state’s so-called don’t say gay law. The law was championed by DeSantis, who is running for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination. In retaliation, DeSantis and Republican legislators earlier this year passed legislation which took over the district Disney had controlled for more than five decades and installed five board members loyal to the governor.

Since the takeover, more than 10% of the district’s 370-employees have left their jobs, with many saying in exit interviews that the district has been politicized and is now permeated by cronyism.

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DeSantis attorneys ask federal judge to dismiss Disney’s free speech lawsuit