Disney Sues Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Citing ‘Targeted Campaign of Government Retaliation’

“In America, the government cannot punish you for speaking your mind,” the company said in its filing

Getty Images

The ongoing battle between Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and the Walt Disney Company has just gone nuclear, with Disney filing paperwork in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida that sues the Governor. The company cites a “targeted campaign of government retaliation” for the lawsuit, which is the crescendo to an increasingly hostile tenor between Disney and DeSantis.

“For more than half a century, Disney has made an immeasurable impact on Florida and its economy, establishing Central Florida as a top global tourist destination and attracting tens of millions of visitors to the state each year,” the complaint begins. But the heart of the matter is a paragraph later, as the company describes “a targeted campaign of government retaliation – orchestrated at every level 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.”

Ostensibly, the battle between Florida’s Governor and the state’s biggest employer kicked off when former CEO Bob Chapek publicly commented on the state’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill. From there, things got much worse, with DeSantis recently saying that he might build a prison on land adjacent to the Walt Disney World property outside of Orlando, Florida.

The complaint, Disney says, is a direct response to DeSantis’ most recent overture to “void” “publicly noted and duly agreed upon contracts,” which Disney outlined in a meeting of the Reedy Creek Improvement District (their name for the governing body that Disney established in 1967) that happened before DeSantis’ takeover.

“Disney regrets that it has come to this,” the complaint reads. “But having exhausted efforts to seek a resolution, the company is left with no choice but to file this lawsuit to protect its cast members, guests, and local development partners from a relentless campaign to weaponize government power against Disney in retaliation for expressing a political viewpoint unpopular with certain state officials.”

DeSantis replaced the Disney-appointed board to Reedy Creek, renaming it the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, and has since threatened to levy heavy taxes and tolls against the company, forcing them to agree to state inspection of attractions and transportation like the Walt Disney World’s monorail system and, yes, build a prison next door (which he assumes he can do thanks to these newfound powers).

What has really riled up DeSantis of late is the understanding that, in a series of measures passed just before power was handed over to the state, Disney passed a number of regulations that severely hamstrung DeSantis’ efforts, leaving the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District essentially in charge of building and maintaining roads (and only after Disney approval). This launched the recent attempt to “void” those distinctions made before DeSantis took over, which has in part inspired the lawsuit.

Earlier Wednesday, before the suit was filed, there was a meeting of the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, which was attended by several Disney partners including the businesses that operate several restaurants within the theme parks and at Disney Springs, the expansive shopping, dining and entertainment complex outside of the theme park. They flew into Orlando just to admonish the new administration.

According to a source who overheard the meeting, they suggested that the overtures DeSantis was making were untenable for them – they are already battling inflation, a crowded marketplace where employees are snapped up by the highest bidder and supply chain issues. They can’t afford to pay their workers more so that they can pay the tolls required for them to get to work. Unanimously, they aired their grievances to the board, which is full of people like Ron Peri, a man who thinks homosexuality is potentially caused by additives to drinking water.

As for what Disney wants out of the lawsuit, they want the judge to “declare that the Legislative Declaration is unlawful and unenforceable because it abrogates Disney’s rights in violation of the Contracts Clause,” essentially striking down DeSantis’ effort to dissolve the previous agreements (Senate Bill 4C and House Bill 9B) “because they were enacted in retaliation for Disney’s speech in violation of the First Amendment.”

Beyond the reversal of DeSantis’ retaliatory business, Disney is also asking for attorneys’ fees and related costs.