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A federal judge has dealt a blow to Walt Disney by dismissing the company’s claims that Ron DeSantis, Florida’s Republican governor, had violated its free speech rights by “retaliating” for its stance on the “Don’t Say Gay” law.
Disney filed the lawsuit last year against DeSantis and other Florida officials for “weaponising the power of government to punish private business” after the company stated its opposition to the 2022 law, which restricted public schools’ ability to discuss LGBT+ issues.
Under DeSantis’s instructions, the Florida state legislature dissolved the private government that Disney had operated around its Orlando theme parks for decades.
DeSantis, who recently ended his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, frequently criticised “woke Disney” at campaign events and other appearances.
Disney, which plans to appeal against the decision, said in a statement that the case “will not end here”.
“If left unchallenged, this would set a dangerous precedent and give license to states to weaponise their official powers to punish the expression of political viewpoints they disagree with,” Disney said in a statement. “We are determined to press forward with our case.”
Disney had enjoyed unusual privileges in Florida for decades through the special taxation district, which had been created after a lobbying effort by Walt and Roy Disney in the 1960s. It is now run by a new five-member board controlled by DeSantis appointees.
Disney last year accused Florida of a “targeted campaign of government retaliation — orchestrated at every step by Governor DeSantis as punishment for Disney’s protected speech”. Its complaint added that the moves threatened Disney’s business operations and the economic future in the region. Disney is the state’s largest private employer.
US District Judge Allen Winsor acknowledged that Florida’s decision to dismantle Disney’s special district — then known as the Reedy Creek Improvement District — worked “to Disney’s significant detriment”.
But Winsor dismissed allegations by Disney that the new board — known as the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District — operates “under the ‘Governor’s thumb”.
“In fact, Disney has not alleged any specific injury from any board action,” the court’s opinion states. “Its alleged injury . . . is its operating under a board it cannot control.”
In his decision, Windsor concluded that “courts shouldn’t look to a law’s legislative history to find an illegitimate motivation for an otherwise constitutional statute”.
Disney has filed a separate lawsuit over control of the special district that is still pending in state court in Orlando.
Bob Iger, Disney’s chief executive, last year labelled DeSantis’s actions “anti-business and anti-Florida”.