Federal judge dismisses Disney's free speech lawsuit against Gov. Ron DeSantis

Second lawsuit still pending in state court
DeSantis and Disney
Posted at 3:08 PM, Jan 31, 2024
and last updated 2024-01-31 17:35:26-05

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — A federal judge on Wednesday dismissed Disney's free speech lawsuit against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and the board he appointed last year to oversee Disney's property.

U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor in Tallahassee ruled that Disney lacked legal standing to sue DeSantis and Florida's secretary of commerce.

The lawsuit was part of an ongoing conflict between Disney, one of Florida's largest taxpayers and employers, and DeSantis.

Read the full ruling below:

"Disney lacks standing to sue the Governor or the Secretary, and its claims against the CFTOD (Central Florida Tourism Oversight) Defendants fail on the merits because '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,'" the court's 17-page ruling said.

Winsor, who was appointed to the bench by President Donald Trump in 2019, said in his decision that when a law on its face is constitutional, plaintiffs can't make free-speech claims challenging it because they believe lawmakers acted with unconstitutional motives.

"Because that is what Disney seeks here, its claim fails as a matter of law," Winsor wrote.

A Disney spokesperson said Wednesday that the company was not deterred by the ruling and planned to "press forward" with its case.

DeSantis Press Secretary Jeremy Redfern said the ruling "finally ends Disney's futile attempts to control its own special government."

Walt Disney Parks and Resorts amended its lawsuit against DeSantis and his hand-picked oversight board in September, dropping all of its claims except one.

The amended complaint focused just on the First Amendment claim and left to another, state-court lawsuit questions about the legality of agreements the company signed with Disney World's governing district, then-made up of Disney supporters. The separate lawsuit is still pending in state court in Orlando.

Tensions rose in 2022 after Disney voiced opposition to a bill championed by DeSantis that banned certain instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in Florida classrooms, dubbed the "Don't Say Gay" bill by critics. The bill passed and DeSantis signed it into law in March 2022.

Disney previously held municipal control over the area surrounding its theme parks, but lost it after DeSantis' bill was passed, establishing the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, which is now overseen by five people hand-picked by the governor.

The board has threatened to hike taxes, raise utility rates and develop the land around the entertainment giant's Central Florida theme parks.

Disney released the following statement after the ruling:

"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. We are determined to press forward with our case."

Below is the full statement from Redfern on the ruling:

"As stated by Governor DeSantis when he signed HB 9-B, the Corporate Kingdom is over. The days of Disney controlling its own government and being placed above the law are long gone. The federal court's decision made it clear that Governor DeSantis was correct: Disney is still just one of many corporations in the state, and they do not have a right to their own special government. In short — as long predicted, case dismissed."