A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit from the Walt Disney Co. against Ron DeSantis that may decide the entertainment giant’s authority to control development around its sprawling theme park.
U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor, in an order issued on Wednesday, found Disney “lacks standing to sue the governor” and DeSantis’ handpicked board that now controls the district in which the company’s park operates. He concluded that the statute reshaping the leadership structure and granting the governor the authority to appoint every member of the tax district’s governing body is “facially constitutional” and cannot be challenged with a free speech claim.
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In a statement, a Disney spokesperson said, “This is an important case with serious implications for the rule of law, and it will not end here.” He added, “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.”
Disney sued last year after the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District (CFTOD), whose members were appointed by the governor, voided an agreement that purported to transfer certain powers of the company’s now-dissolved special district back to the company. The development contracts were quietly signed by the previous oversight board the day before the state legislature passed a bill at DeSantis’ direction giving him control of the district. The move was intended to retaliate against Disney for opposing a law limiting classroom discussion on sexuality.
CFTOD chairman Martin Garcia said in a statement, “Our board and the district will now continue to make the appropriate changes to operate and function as an independent government agency to promote transparency and accountability while bringing more prosperity to more people in Florida.”
Before the legislative amendments, Disney enjoyed voting rights in the district that oversaw its theme park. Now, it faces decisions by a board over which it has no authority. The court said that its loss of control is a “constitutional injury” traceable to the CFTOD but not DeSantis.
Disney had argued that the governor had “actual control” over the board since he has the power to appoint every member. Winsor responded in his order, “To the extent the Governor contributed to Disney’s injury by appointing CFTOD board members, that action is in the past. Because Disney seeks injunctive relief, it must allege an imminent future injury, and it has not alleged facts showing that any imminent future appointments will contribute to its harm.”
If the court granted Disney’s request to block future appointments, it reasoned that the company would essentially be in the same position of operating under the current board over which it has no control.
Responding to arguments that DeSantis is exercising actual control over the CFTOD’s actions, Winsor said that the allegations are “conclusory” since Disney failed to point to specific actions the board took at the governor’s direction.
“In fact, Disney has not alleged any specific injury from any board action,” wrote the judge, who noted that the only alleged harm suffered by the company is operating under a board it does not control.
The court also found the statute Disney is challenging constitutional, meaning that the company cannot bring a free speech challenge against the lawmakers who passed it. The state legislature, it explained, is allowed to determine the structure of Florida’s special improvement districts.
In making the finding, Winsor rejected arguments Disney was explicitly targeted by DeSantis because “no one reading the text of the challenged laws would suppose them directed against” the company.
“The laws do no mention Disney,” the judge wrote.
Charles Cooper, a lawyer representing CFTOD, said in a statement, “We are pleased that the district court applied clear precedent to reject Disney’s claim that it, rather Florida’s Legislature and her Governor, gets to choose the officials who will serve on its local government body. Disney may own the land in the district, but it does not own the government.”
Disney last year narrowed its suit against DeSantis to focus solely on First Amendment claims that he retaliated against the company in violation of its free speech rights for opposing the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law. It said that it will argue its contract-based claims in state court, where it’s fighting a suit brought by DeSantis accusing it of illegally cobbling together a “series of eleventh-hour deals” to transfer the powers of its now-dissolved special district back to the company before he assumed control of the board.
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