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Disney sues Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, claiming 'government retaliation'

Cars line-up to enter Walt Disney World on February 08, 2023 in Orlando, Florida.
Joe Raedle
Getty Images
Cars line-up to enter Walt Disney World on February 08, 2023 in Orlando, Florida.

MIAMI — The Walt Disney Company has filed a lawsuit against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and other officials. Disney accuses DeSantis with orchestrating a "campaign of government retaliation" against the company and violating its protected speech.

It's the latest action in a feud that began more than a year ago when Disney's former CEO said he'd work to overturn a law banning discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in the schools. The law, the "Parental Rights in Education Act," is called "Don't Say Gay" by critics.

At DeSantis' urging, Republican lawmakers passed a bill that stripped Disney of its self-governing authority. But before the law took effect, Disney signed a deal with its outgoing board allowing it to retain development rights on the 40-square mile district. It also included covenants that give Disney final say on any alterations to the property.

At a meeting Wednesday near Orlando, DeSantis' handpicked board voted to invalidate that agreement. Moments later, Disney filed a 77-page lawsuit in federal court, charging DeSantis and other officials with violations of the contracts clause, the takings clause, due process and its First Amendment right to protected speech. In its lawsuit, Disney says, "This government action was patently retaliatory, patently anti-business, and patently unconstitutional." The company is asking a federal judge to declare the board's action "unlawful and unenforceable."

Before voting to invalidate Disney's development deal, the district board heard a lengthy presentation from its lawyers detailing what they said were procedural missteps made by Disney's lawyers that, in their view, rendered it "void and unenforceable." They said all parties had not received proper notice of the vote on the agreement and that it should have also been approved by the district's two cities. Disney maintains proper notices were sent out and that the development deal was approved in an open meeting in compliance with Florida law.

Before voting to strike down Disney's development deal, the new district board heard from a number of independent business owners who have restaurants and retail shops at Disney properties. Several said they were concerned new regulations and taxes could raise their costs and make their businesses unprofitable. Gov. DeSantis has talked about raising taxes and putting toll roads in the district. He's also discussed using some of the land for additional development and even a new prison. Board chairman Martin Garcia told business owners their taxes would be going up, in part to pay for legal fees related to the the DeSantis' dispute with Disney.

Debra Mcdonald, a resident of Celebration, a community originally built by Disney that is adjacent to the theme park told the board that, because of the ongoing feud, "many in our community are afraid." McDonald said, "It has hurt us deeply. It's not just between the Governor and Disney. It affecting everyone around him."

In response to the lawsuit, DeSantis' communications director Taryn Fenske said, "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."

DeSantis is currently overseas on an international trade mission.

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Greg Allen
As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.
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