Judge refuses to dismiss lawsuit against Disney’s efforts to neutralize governing district takeover

28 July 2023

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — A judge in Florida on Friday refused to dismiss a lawsuit brought by Gov. Ron DeSantis appointees against Disney’s efforts to neutralize the governor’s takeover of Disney World’s governing district.

The judge in state court in Orlando denied Disney’s motion in the lawsuit that says the company wrongly stripped appointees of powers over design and construction at Disney World when it made agreements with predecessors, who were supporters.

The case is one of two lawsuits stemming from the takeover, which was retaliation for the company’s public opposition to the so-called Don’t Say Gay legislation championed by DeSantis and Republican lawmakers. In the other lawsuit, in federal court in Tallahassee, Disney says DeSantis violated the company’s free speech rights.

The governor has touted his yearlong feud with Disney in his run for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination, often accusing the entertainment giant of being too “woke.” Disney has accused the governor of violating its First Amendment rights.

Attorneys for Disney had argued that any decision in state court would be moot since the Republican-controlled Legislature already has passed a law voiding agreements that the company made with a prior governing board made up of Disney supporters that gave design and construction powers to the company.

The entertainment giant had asked that the state court case be put on hold if it’s not dismissed until the federal lawsuit in Tallahassee was resolved since they covered the same ground and that lawsuit was filed first.

In that case, Disney sued DeSantis and his appointees to the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District in an effort to stop the takeover, saying the governor was violating the company’s free speech and “weaponizing the power of government to punish private business.”

DeSantis wasn’t a party in the state court lawsuit.

The fight between DeSantis and Disney began last year after the company, facing significant pressure internally and externally, publicly opposed a state law banning classroom lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity in early grades, a policy critics call “Don’t Say Gay.”

As punishment, DeSantis took over the district through legislation passed by Florida lawmakers and appointed a new board of supervisors to oversee municipal services for the sprawling theme parks and hotels. But before the new board came in, the company made agreements with previous oversight board members who were Disney supporters that stripped the new supervisors of their authority over design and construction.

In response, DeSantis and Florida lawmakers passed the legislation that repealed those agreements.

Disney announced in May that it was scrapping plans to build a new campus in central Florida and relocate 2,000 employees from Southern California to work in digital technology, finance and product development. Disney had planned to build the campus about 20 miles (30 kilometers) from the giant Walt Disney World theme park resort.

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Follow Mike Schneider on Twitter at @MikeSchneiderAP

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