Federal Judge Rules Disney’s Claims of Retaliation by DeSantis Unsubstantiated

A federal judge dismissed Disney’s lawsuit against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on the grounds that the entertainment giant did not have sufficient standing to bring the First Amendment challenge.
In the lawsuit, Disney argued that DeSantis had unconstitutionally retaliated against the company by organizing a state takeover of the special taxing district that had been created in 1967 and covered the 25,000-plus acres now occupied by the Walt Disney World resort’s theme parks, hotels, and various other facilities. Disney claimed that DeSantis had engaged in a “relentless campaign to weaponize government power against Disney” in response to Disney’s then-CEO Bob Chapek publicly criticizing DeSantis’ approval of a law that restricted discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools.
In Wednesday’s ruling, federal Judge Allen Winsor wrote that Disney fell short of proving the retaliation claim. Disney, he wrote, “has not alleged any specific actions the new board took (or will take) because of the governor’s alleged control.”
In a statement, DeSantis’ spokesman Jeff Redfern said Wednesday’s ruling vindicated the governor’s view that “Disney is still just one of many corporations in the state, and they do not have a right to their own special government.”
Meanwhile, Disney has vowed to appeal the ruling. “This is an important case with serious implications for the rule of law, and it will not end here,” the company said in a statement. “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.”
Indeed, DeSantis may have prevailed within the letter of the law, but there is little doubt that his actions toward Disney were a direct response to Chapek’s criticism. We know this because DeSantis has said and written as much.
“When Disney first came out against the bill…people in the legislature started floating this idea of going after Reedy Creek,” DeSantis told The American Conservative in an interview published in May. Meanwhile, DeSantis wrote extensively about his fight with Disney in his recent book, The Courage To Be Free, and leaves little doubt about how he approached the issue. In one passage, DeSantis writes that “things got worse for Disney” after the company criticized his policies. Finally, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed last February, DeSantis explained that his administration’s actions toward Disney were an attempt to “fight back” against the corporation’s so-called “woke ideology” as expressed in Disney’s criticism.
Winsor says those actions don’t meet the legal standard for being unconstitutional. Fine. It’s still deeply distasteful for a governor to target a private company because its leaders dared to criticize his policy choices—and DeSantis’ handling of this situation should not become a model for other chief executives, no matter what the courts have to say about it.