A judge on Wednesday dismissed a federal lawsuit Disney filed against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and other defendants that alleged they retaliated against the company for publicly criticizing a controversial parental rights education law backed by the governor.
Judge Allen Winsor ruled that Disney lacked legal standing to sue DeSantis and the secretary of Florida’s Commerce Department on a claim of violating its First Amendment rights.
Winsor also ruled that Disney’s claims “fail on the merits” against members of the board of a special improvement district in which the company operates its parks and resort.
The judge on that point cited federal appeals court rulings which hold that when a law is constitutional on its face, a plaintiff cannot sue on free-speech grounds “by claiming that the lawmakers who passed it acted with a constitutionally impermissible purpose.”
Disney on Wednesday said it will appeal Winsor’s ruling.
Disney had effectively controlled the district’s board since 1967 until the Florida legislature last year significantly changed its structure and renamed it the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District. The governor, who pushed for that change, now picks board members, subject to confirmation by the state Senate.
After the CFTOD was created, it voted to toss out a development agreement with Disney that had been approved by its predecessor, the Reedy Creek Improvement District.
Disney had accused the defendants of punishing the company with the changes to the board after the company in 2022 denounced legislation dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by critics. Now law, the legislation limits school classroom discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity.
DeSantis had touted the law, and his fight with Disney, during his unsuccessful run for the Republican presidential nomination.
DeSantis and the other defendants had asked the judge to toss out Disney’s suit, which was filed in U.S. District Court in Tallahassee.
A Disney spokesperson told CNBC on Wednesday, “This is an important case with serious implications for the rule of law, and it will not end here.”
The spokesperson also said that if the ruling were “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.”
DeSantis’ spokesman Jeremy Redfern, in a statement, said, “As stated by Governor DeSantis when he signed HB 9-B, the Corporate Kingdom is over. The days of Disney controlling its own government and being placed above the law are long gone.”
“The federal court’s decision made it clear that Governor DeSantis was correct: Disney is still just one of many corporations in the state, and they do not have a right to their own special government,” Redfern said. “In short — as long predicted, case dismissed.”
Martin Garcia, chairman of the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, said, “I’m delighted that this lawsuit, which was nothing more than a distraction, is now behind us. Our board and the district will now continue to make the appropriate changes to operate and function as an independent government agency to promote transparency and accountability while bringing more prosperity to more people in Florida.”
The ruling does not affect a Florida state lawsuit by Disney seeking to reverse the CFTOD board’s decision to undo the company’s development agreement with the board’s predecessor.
In his ruling in the federal suit, Winsor said that because Disney was seeking injunctive relief in its suit, “it must allege an imminent future injury,” not that DeSantis had injured it in the past by appointing members to the CFTOD board.
“And it has not alleged facts showing that any imminent future appointments will contribute to its harm,” Winsor wrote.
“The analysis could be different if the Governor had not yet made any appointments,” the judge said. “But as things stand, if this court enjoined future appointments, Disney would face the same situation it faces now: it would be operating under the CFTOD board, over which it has no control.”
The judge wrote that Disney also lacks standing to sue the Commerce Department secretary, writing that “Disney struggled to articulate any injury attributable to the Secretary.”
“At best, it contends that the Secretary’s duties include ‘maintain[ing] the Official List of Special Districts,'” Winsor wrote. “But that list — or the Secretary’s authority in keeping it — does nothing to affect the CFTOD Defendant’s authority.”