Federal judge throws out Disney’s lawsuit against DeSantis

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TALLAHASSEE, Florida — Disney lost a major battle in its bitter struggle with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis after a federal judge tossed out the entertainment giant’s lawsuit against the Republican governor and his hand-picked board that now oversees the land around Disney World.

U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor, who was appointed to the bench by former President Donald Trump, said Disney lacked standing and jurisdiction in arguing that actions pushed by DeSantis were retaliatory and violated the First Amendment rights of the company.

Disney said in a statement Wednesday that it intends to appeal the decision.

“This is an important case with serious implications for the rule of law, and it will not end here," the company stated. "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. We are determined to press forward with our case.”

Jeremy Redfern, a spokesperson for DeSantis, said in a statement that the ruling makes it clear the governor was correct.

"The days of Disney controlling its own government and being placed above the law are long gone,” he said. “Disney is still just one of many corporations in the state, and they do not have a right to their own special government.”

Central Florida Tourism Oversight District Chairman Martin Garcia said he was pleased the lawsuit, which he called a distraction, was dropped.

The legal battle was a direct outgrowth of Disney’s decision to criticize Florida’s parental rights in education bill that banned classroom instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity. Lawmakers first passed the legislation, that critics called “Don’t Say Gay,” in 2022. Disney’s decision to advocate for a repeal of the law triggered DeSantis’ decision to seek an end to Disney’s control of the special district it had controlled for decades.

DeSantis, who acknowledged his efforts in his book he released in early 2023, put together a stealth campaign to dissolve the Reedy Creek Improvement District that was created back in the 1960s as a part of a deal between Florida and Disney to bring Disney World to the state. The proposal approved by the GOP-controlled Legislature was made public, voted on and signed into law in less than a week in April 2022.

That 2022 legislative effort, however, left lingering questions about outstanding district debt and taxes. So in February 2023, legislators created a new special district and DeSantis placed allies on the new Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, including Bridget Ziegler, a co-founder of Moms for Liberty and member of the Sarasota County School Board.

Bridget Ziegler is married to Christian Ziegler, who recently lost his post as chair of the Republican Party of Florida amid a rape and video voyeurism investigation. Christian Ziegler has denied any wrongdoing and police recently stated that they aren't recommending rape charges against him.

In his ruling, Winsor said Disney "has not alleged any specific actions the new board took (or will take) because of the governor’s alleged control,” adding that the company “has not alleged any specific injury from any board action.”

“Its alleged injury … is it's operating under a board it cannot control. That injury would exist whether or not the governor controlled the board,” he wrote.

DeSantis has constantly referenced his battle with Disney during both his now-defunct presidential campaign and his reelection campaign. At one point DeSantis even suggested the state should look at developing property near Disney and hiking tolls on roads near the theme parks. He also repeatedly said that Florida has already “won” its fight with Disney.

Disney first brought the lawsuit into federal court back in April, right after the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District sought to scuttle agreements that Disney had reached with the previous special district board right before it was dismantled.

In one of its motions filed in September, lawyers argued that DeSantis and his allies had engaged in a “targeted” campaign that “threatens Disney’s business operations, jeopardizes its economic future in the region and violates its constitutional rights.”

During a two-hour court hearing before Winsor in December, attorneys representing the governor repeatedly argued that Disney had no “standing” to sue DeSantis, while Charles Cooper — a well-known D.C. conservative attorney hired by the district — argued that changes that affected Disney were “ordinary” regulatory provisions dealing with special districts.

The ruling in the federal lawsuit does not end the ongoing acrimony. Disney and the new district board are still embroiled in a legal dispute over land use agreements that is underway in a state court in central Florida. That case is expected to continue at least into next spring. In that legal battle Disney has filed a counterclaim that asks a court to void the law that created the tourism district.

Kimberly Leonard contributed to this report.