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How strong is Disney’s case against Ron DeSantis?

With its lawsuit against Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, Walt Disney Co. has drawn new battle lines in the country’s tumultuous culture war over LGBTQ+ issues — taking aim at the likely presidential hopeful for allegedly violating his rights in a battle for control of the lands encompassing its Orlando area stations.

The Republican governor and his political allies fought a year-long battle with Disney to wrest control of 27,000 acres of land administered by what was long known as the Reedy Creek Improvement District, giving the company of unusual autonomous powers.

Disney has asked a federal court to invalidate state actions, restore its contracts and protect its long-term powers to control the development of Walt Disney World, where it said it plans to invest $17 billions of dollars over the next decade.

Disney’s 74-page lawsuit, filed this week in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida, argues that DeSantis violated the company’s 1st Amendment rights in revenge for speaking out last year the state’s so-called Don’t Say Gay law. , which limited classroom discussion about sexual orientation and gender identity.

DeSantis dismissed the lawsuit as an attempt by Disney to retain extraordinary privileges not granted to other companies in Florida. A spokeswoman called it Disney’s attempt “to undermine the will of Florida voters.”

In truth, the case is more complex than both sides suggest, having to do with agreements dating back to the 1960s that allowed the Burbank-based company to run a 43-square-mile district – comprising several stations including Magic Kingdom and Epcot – basically like its own local government.

The fight is a proxy battle in the country’s broader LGBTQ+ rights debate — a battle that could draw the political blood of a top 2024 presidential candidate and put a family-friendly entertainment brand at the center of it all. an all-out political brawl.

Disney called DeSantis’ decision-making not only politically motivated, but also financially reckless and without constitutional basis.

Legal and political experts said the trial marks a significant escalation in tensions between a powerful governor and one of his state’s biggest economic engines. Disney is responsible for more than $1 billion in local and state taxes in Florida each year.

“It’s mind-blowing — it really blows your mind — that it’s escalated now to the point where we’re going to have this massive trial,” said Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida. “It’s incredible to me that the Governor and the Republican Legislature are willing to trash Disney and risk economic growth…over this one dispute.”

DeSantis’ willingness to go this far is proof of the value he places on developing his reputation as a conservative leader attacking the “woke” agenda of the progressive left – including on LGBTQ+ issues, which Republicans used as a political corner.

DeSantis is looking for ways to distinguish himself in the presidential election from former President Trump, who remains a juggernaut in the Republican primaries and has taken on anti-LGBTQ+ causes with particular verve.

Taking a stand against Disney could strengthen DeSantis in the eyes of part of the party’s conservative base. But it also exposes him and his administration to deadly litigation and investigative efforts by Disney’s legal team — who will no doubt attempt to portray the governor as vindictive and short-sighted.

“Disney, if this lawsuit proceeds, will have the ability to demand from DeSantis and his subordinates every piece of paper they have exchanged on anything Disney related for a period of time,” said Paul Barrett, deputy director of the Center for Business and Human Rights at New York University School of Business. “They’re going to have to spit that out.”

The more than 50-year-old agreement that granted Disney sweeping powers to Florida was indeed one of a kind. State officials created a special district in 1967 that allowed Disney to run its resorts with great autonomy, in return for the company’s promises to boost central Florida’s economy.

Walt Disney first eyed the Orlando area for a new East Coast kingdom in the 1960s – and Florida officials were more than happy to work alongside him to make development happen.

Under the auspices of the Reedy Creek Improvement District, Disney could essentially step in and issue municipal bonds to turn the area’s empty swamps into an international tourist destination with its own town centers, sewer and water systems. drainage and its transmission lines.

Until recently, Florida did not express many qualms. The company was a cherished business of the state, contributing huge amounts of tax revenue and local jobs, not to mention campaign contributions to elected officials.

Disney’s lawsuit argues that concerns about his power arose after he spoke out against the Parental Rights in Education Bill – a claim he supports by citing DeSantis and other executives from Florida making that exact point.

According to Disney’s complaint, DeSantis said the company had “crossed the line” and immediately launched “a coordinated campaign” to hurt the company and strip it of its local government authorities – which the company called a “case of retaliation as plain as this Court is likely to see.

Disney’s complaint notes that just days after DeSantis signed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill and Disney released his statement of opposition, DeSantis said state officials “won’t certainly not bend a knee to wake up leaders in California.”

Weeks later, according to Disney’s complaint, a campaign fundraising email from DeSantis was sent stating, “Disney and other woke corporations will no longer get away with peddling their unchecked pressure campaigns .”

The Florida Legislature last year voted to dissolve the district of Reedy Creek. Disney’s complaint quotes a Florida lawmaker at the time saying, “You hit the hornet’s nest, things happen. And I will say this: you got me on one thing, this bill targets a business. He targets the Walt Disney Company.

Later, instead of dismantling the district, DeSantis in February appointed new supervisors to replace the Disney-controlled board that runs it, renaming the body Central Florida Tourism Oversight District.

Disney managed to sign contracts with the old supervisory board that protected much of its control over the operation and continued development of its resorts before the new body took over, but the new board quickly said these contracts null and void. This decision was quickly followed on Wednesday by Disney’s lawsuit.

Jacob Schumera Florida land use and local government attorney who has been following the dispute said Disney has the strongest case.

He does not accept the state’s argument that Disney’s control of land around its developments is illegitimate because it represents a corporate usurpation of government powers.

“These agreements are pretty standard when it comes to developments in Florida,” Schumer said. “They’re not out of the ordinary in the kinds of things they do, although they are definitely out of the ordinary in the amount of money they give to Disney.”

Disney also has a strong argument that the state’s unilateral decision to cancel the company’s contracts with the district was questionable. Arguments that the contracts were signed in violation of state law may carry some weight, but not if the missteps in question were all committed by former district officials.

“They can’t go back and say, ‘Never mind, we’re not bound by our contracts because we made mistakes,'” Schumer said.

Schumer said it would be more difficult for Disney to convince the federal court to require the state of Florida to take certain actions regarding the special district, such as re-creating the district’s old structure, because that would amount to what that the federal government tell a state how to structure its own local governments.

Then there are the problems of the 1st Amendment.

NYU’s Barrett said Disney’s retaliation claim is strong because corporations have substantive rights to express their views under the 1st Amendment just like individuals, and DeSantis appears to have targeted the company for do exactly that.

“DeSantis has publicly and repeatedly singled out Disney, and I believe there is what attorneys would call prima facie evidence – prima facie evidence – that appears to support the claim that the company is being punished for of his political views,” Barrett said. .

And that’s just what was said in public, he said — not what might be revealed in internal DeSantis administration communications laid bare by the discovery.

Los Angeles Times

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