Florida board sues Disney after company filed lawsuit over DeSantis retaliation

Legal battle escalates feud stemming from company’s public opposition to ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law

Alex Woodward
New York
Monday 01 May 2023 17:56 BST
Disney Files Lawsuit Accusing DeSantis of Weaponizing Government Power

The governing board that oversees Walt Disney World’s sprawling Florida park properties intends to sue the company just days after Disney filed a federal lawsuit against the board.

A five-person Central Florida Tourism Oversight Board, installed by Governor Ron DeSantis, voted unanimously on 1 May to sue Disney in state court, after Disney’s federal lawsuit on 26 April accused the governor’s administration of waging a “relentless campaign to weaponize government power against Disney in retaliation for expressing a political viewpoint.”

The escalating legal battle follows the governor’s state takeover of the Reedy Creek Improvement District, now the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, made up of right-wing activists and DeSantis loyalists, a move that followed Florida Republicans’ punitive measures against the company after its public opposition to what opponents called the state’s “Don’t Say Gay” law.

Disney sued the board moments after it voted to invalidate agreements made under the previous board, which would keep a bulk of Disney’s operations under the company’s control, despite efforts from the DeSantis administration.

Disney’s lawsuit alleges that Mr DeSantis’ effort “threatens Disney’s business operations, jeopardizes its economic future in the region and violates its constitutional rights.”

The latest litigation follows a feud that has been simmering for more than a year, after Disney leadership announced that the company would oppose the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law and suspend its political donations in the state, only after weeks of pressure from LGBT+ advocates and Disney employees urging the company to publicly lobby against the measure.

That legislation – the “Parental Rights in Education Act” – prohibits instruction of “sexual orientation or gender identity” from kindergarten through the third grade and any such discussion “that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students” in other grades. The governor recently expanded the law to explicitly extend such restrictions to all grades.

Critics have warned that the broadly written law threatens to freeze classroom speech involving LGBT+ people and issues, from civil rights history lessons to discussion of LGBT+ students, school staff and their families. Following passage of the Florida law, lawmakers across the US and in Congress floated similar legislation, including at least 26 measures in 14 states in current legislative sessions alone.

After Disney’s public objections, Governor DeSantis and members of his administration ignited a feud that escalated to Republican threats to punish Disney’s operations in the state and ultimately resulted in his administration taking control of them.

A municipal district that oversees Disney’s Florida properties was first implemented in 1967 to effectively allow Disney to control its own land use, zoning rules and public services, without putting a tax burden on Florida residents. In effect, Disney taxed itself to foot the district’s bill for its municipal needs.

Earlier this year, Governor DeSantis signed a bill that amounts to a state takeover of the district, run by an appointed board.

The Independent has requested comment from Disney.

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