Walt Disney Parks and Resorts has sued Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and other state officials, saying the state’s assertion of control over Disney property is retaliation for the company’s opposition to Florida’s “don’t say gay” law.
“A targeted campaign of government retaliation — orchestrated at every step 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,” says the suit, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida.
Since 1967, Disney has had a special tax district, known as the Reedy Creek Improvement District that includes Walt Disney World, the theme park near Orlando. The district gives the company “unusual control over fire protection, policing, waste management, energy generation, road maintenance, bond issuance and development planning,” The New York Timesexplains.
But state officials sought to limit Disney’s control after the company spoke out against the “don’t say gay” legislation, which bans public school instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity. Some employees and activists said Disney’s announcement of opposition to the legislation came too late; the measure had already been passed by lawmakers and was awaiting DeSantis’s signature. DeSantis did sign it into law last year, and it was recently expanded by the Florida Board of Education.
In February, state legislators dissolved Reedy Creek and empowered DeSantis to appoint a board to oversee a renamed district — Central Florida Tourism Oversight District Board of Supervisors. Before the new board was seated, however, the existing one, appointed by the company, had approved a plan for Disney to build more theme parks and thousands of new hotel rooms in the district. It also limited some uses of nearby land. These actions would have limited the DeSantis board’s ability to manage the area’s development, so when that board came in Wednesday, it nullified the previous board’s approval. Disney filed the lawsuit just minutes later.
DeSantis had already talked about taking some action against Disney. “Maybe create a state park, maybe try to do more amusement parks — someone even said, like, maybe you need another state prison,” he said this month.
The suit asks the court to declare that the state’s actions violated the company’s constitutional rights and let Disney proceed with its plans. It names as defendants DeSantis; members of the oversight board and its administrator, John Classe; and Meredith Ivey, acting secretary of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.
Alan Lawson, a former Florida Supreme Court justice retained as an attorney to represent the state's interests, told Politicothat Disney once had “unique and special privilege, that privilege of running its own local government for a time. That era has ended.”
DeSantis spokesman Jeremy Redfern told the publication, “We are unaware of any legal right that a company has to operate its own government or maintain special privileges not held by other businesses in the state. This lawsuit is yet another unfortunate example of their hope to undermine the will of the Florida voters and operate outside the bounds of the law.”