Florida and a special district ask a judge to toss out a lawsuit alleging the state unconstitutionally retaliated against Disney

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Walt Disney World entrance in 2010. photo By Jrobertiko (Denis Adriana Macias) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Jim Saunders ©2023 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — Attorneys for Gov. Ron DeSantis and a revamped Central Florida special district asked a federal judge Thursday to dismiss a lawsuit alleging the state unconstitutionally retaliated against Walt Disney Parks and Resorts because of the company’s opposition to a controversial education law.

The attorneys filed two motions disputing that a decision by DeSantis and lawmakers to replace the former Reedy Creek Improvement District with the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District was retaliation that violated Disney’s First Amendment rights. The decades-old Reedy Creek district was closely aligned with Disney, while DeSantis appoints the new district’s board.

“Disney claims that the First Amendment gives it, rather than Florida lawmakers, the right to decide the structure and composition of the governing entity in the district,” attorneys for the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District wrote. “Disney may own most of the land in the district, but it does not own the government. That still belongs to the people, acting through their elected representatives.”

Attorneys for DeSantis and the secretary of the Florida Department of Commerce wrote that Disney’s lawsuit is a “last-ditch effort to reinstate its corporate kingdom” and that the state had decided to “reform” the district.

But in the lawsuit, Disney lawyers argued that it “is a clear violation of Disney’s federal First Amendment rights for the state to inflict a concerted campaign of retaliation because the company expressed an opinion with which the government disagreed” on the education issue.

“Disney regrets that it has come to this,” the lawsuit said. “But having exhausted efforts to seek a resolution, the company is left with no choice but to file this lawsuit to protect its cast members, guests and local development partners from a relentless campaign to weaponize government power against Disney in retaliation for expressing a political viewpoint unpopular with certain state officials.”

Disney filed the lawsuit in April in federal court in Tallahassee and filed a revised version this month. DeSantis and Disney began clashing in 2022 after company officials opposed a new law that restricted instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in schools.

Amid the clash, DeSantis and the Republican-controlled Legislature passed two laws that ultimately led to renaming the Reedy Creek Improvement District as the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, restricting some of its powers and giving the governor authority to appoint the district board. The state in the 1960s created the Reedy Creek district and gave it many powers similar to local governments.

In the lawsuit, Disney is seeking an injunction against the two laws, alleging they are “unlawful and unenforceable because they were enacted in retaliation for Disney’s political speech in violation of the First Amendment.”

In addition to disputing the First Amendment arguments, attorneys for DeSantis argued in their motion Thursday that Disney does not have standing to sue the governor and the Department of Commerce secretary. Meredith Ivey was acting secretary of the department at the time the lawsuit was filed, though Alex Kelly was subsequently named secretary.

The motion said the governor and secretary do not “enforce any of the laws at issue, so Disney lacks standing to sue them.” It said DeSantis’ only connection to the laws is the power to appoint Central Florida Tourism Oversight District board members.

“The governor’s appointment power is just one aspect of the governmental apparatus that the Legislature created to replace RCID’s (Reedy Creek Improvement District’s) charter,” the motion said. “The cause of Disney’s alleged injury is thus not the governor’s ‘enforcement’ of … (the) appointment provision, but the ‘very existence’ of … (the) repeal provision.”

The case is assigned to U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor, who has given Disney until Oct. 19 to respond to the filings Thursday.

Meanwhile, Disney and the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District also continue to battle in a separate case in Orange County circuit court.

The district is seeking a ruling that development agreements reached by Disney and the former Reedy Creek board are “null and void.” The agreements were approved shortly before the switch to the Central Florida Tourism Oversight board.

But Disney on Thursday filed a revised counter-claim that makes a series of arguments, including that the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District has unconstitutionally breached contracts.

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