It’s been more than a year since Florida Governor Ron DeSantis started a heated fight with The Walt Disney Company. Just when we thought things couldn’t get any worse between the two, they did. On April 26, Walt Disney World filed a lawsuit in federal court against the governor. In its lawsuit, Disney claimed that the governor was retaliating against Disney because Disney exercised its First Amendment rights. Disney said that it was put in the”regrettable position” of suing, but had no choice because it had become the victim of a “targeted campaign of government retaliation.”
Not long after the lawsuit was filed, a spokesperson for Governor DeSantis said that Disney was trying to thwart the will of the Florida voters. They also said that Disney was trying to operate “outside the bounds of the law.” Disney has been operating the same way for nearly 60 years, ever since the Reedy Creek Improvement District was created in 1967.
However, according to legal experts, it doesn’t appear that Disney is the one trying to operate outside the law. The controversial Florida governor would be the one doing that.
Several First Amendment attorneys spoke to CNN and all agreed that Disney has the upper hand in the lawsuit.
“It’s a serious First Amendment case,” Floyd Abrams, the renowned First Amendment attorney of Pentagon Papers fame, told CNN. Abrams said he expected the case to survive a motion to dismiss by Florida.
Ted Boutrous, the First Amendment attorney, agreed, saying that Disney had put together “a powerful complaint.” Boutrous said that Disney’s “First Amendment arguments are extremely strong.”
“DeSantis has admitted — indeed bragged about — retaliating against Disney to punish it for its speech on an issue of public concern and importance,” Boutrous added. “That is a classic First Amendment violation.”
Rebecca Tushnet, the Frank Stanton Professor of First Amendment Law at Harvard Law School, noted to me that the “retaliatory campaign” was “not subtle.” Tushnet said Disney “has a strong case, both under the First Amendment and potentially for violation of its property rights that the state is trying to destroy.”
Recently, Governor DeSantis has said that the state legislature is looking into passing a bill that would put all Walt Disney World Resort rides and attractions under state inspections. The law would not apply to Universal Orlando or SeaWorld Orlando, which are both near Disney World. Disney, Universal, and SeaWorld have always been able to have their own inspections done — not through the state — because they have more than 1,000 employees.
The governor has also threatened to put a prison next to Disney World, and even build toll roads into and out of the Resort. The state has already taken control of the Reedy Creek Improvement District. However, while the governor may be trying to punish Disney, it is possible that Florida taxpayers will be punished more. When Disney controlled Reedy Creek, the company was responsible for everything in the district — from road repairs, infrastructure, ride repairs, electricity, and so much more. Now that it is controlled by the state, the state will pay.
Legally, the state will also be responsible for the debt incurred by Reedy Creek, which is estimated to be more than $1 billion. DeSantis has said that Disney will pay those debts, but he has not said how he will force them to do that.