Sunday, May 26

Federal Judge Dismisses Disney Lawsuit Against DeSantis

In a victory for Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, a federal judge on Wednesday threw out a lawsuit filed by the Walt Disney Company claiming that Mr. DeSantis and his allies violated the First Amendment by taking over a special tax district that encompasses Walt Disney World.

Disney said it planned to appeal the ruling.

Disney and Mr. DeSantis, who recently ended his campaign for president, have been at odds for nearly two years over Disney World, the 25,000-acre theme park and resort complex south of Orlando. Angered over Disney’s criticism of a Florida education law that opponents called anti-gay — and seizing on an opportunity to score political points with supporters — Mr. DeSantis took over the tax district, appointing a new board and ending the company’s long-held ability to self govern Disney World as if it were a county.

Before the takeover took effect, however, Disney signed contracts — quietly, but in publicly advertised meetings — to lock in development plans worth some $17 billion over the next decade. An effort by Mr. DeSantis and his allies to void the contracts resulted in dueling lawsuits, with Disney suing Mr. DeSantis and the tax district in federal court and the new appointees returning fire in state court.

On Wednesday, Judge Allen Winsor in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida in Tallahassee dismissed the federal case in its entirety. In its lawsuit, Disney had accused Mr. DeSantis of a “relentless campaign to weaponize government power against Disney in retaliation for expressing a political viewpoint.” The campaign, the company had added, “now threatens Disney’s business operations, jeopardizes its economic future in the region and violates its constitutional rights.”

But Judge Winsor found that the law giving Mr. DeSantis control of the special tax district was written in a way that — on its face — did not allow Disney to claim retaliation, mostly because Disney was not the only landowner affected.

“It is settled law that ‘when a statute is facially constitutional, a plaintiff cannot bring a free-speech challenge by claiming that the lawmakers who passed it acted with a constitutionally impermissible purpose,’” he wrote in his ruling.

Judge Winsor added that Disney “faces the brunt of the harm” from the law but not all of it. “There is no ‘close enough’ exception.” His ruling aligned with arguments made in December hearings by lawyers for Mr. DeSantis: that it didn’t matter if the governor’s action was retaliatory, only whether the subsequent state law stripping Disney of control was constitutional.

In a statement, Disney said: “This is an important case with serious implications for the rule of law, and it will not end here. If left unchallenged, this would set a dangerous precedent and give license to states to weaponize their official powers to punish the expression of political viewpoints they disagree with.”

A spokesman for Mr. DeSantis and the oversight board had no immediate comment.

As part of his 17-page ruling, Judge Winsor said that Disney had also failed to show “any specific injury” from actions by the new tax district board. The only injury, he said, was that Disney must now operate “under a board it cannot control,” which was not good enough.

While a significant setback for Disney, the ruling is unlikely to have an immediate impact on the relationship between the company and the oversight board. The state lawsuit remains active.

The state judge, Margaret Schreiber, denied Disney’s motion to dismiss the countersuit. In November, however, she granted Disney’s request to push the next phase of the state case to March; Disney had accused the tax district of dragging its feet in complying with discovery requests.

Disney has since filed a related lawsuit in state court accusing the district of failing to comply with public records requests.