In a significant victory for the governor. Ron DeSantis of Florida, a federal judge on Wednesday dismissed a lawsuit filed by the Walt Disney Company, saying Mr. DeSantis and his allies violated the First Amendment by taking control of a special tax district that encompasses Walt Disney World.
Disney announced its intention to appeal the decision.
Disney and Mr. DeSantis, who recently ended his presidential campaign, have been at odds for nearly two years over Disney World, the 25,000-acre theme park and resort south of Orlando. Angered by Disney’s criticism of a Florida education law that its opponents called anti-gay — and seizing the opportunity to score political points with its supporters — Mr. DeSantis took control of the taxing district, appointing a new board of directors and ending the company’s long-standing ability to have Disney World stand alone as if it were a county.
However, before the buyout took effect, Disney signed contracts – quietly, but in publicly announced meetings – to secure development plans worth some $17 billion over the next decade. Efforts by Mr. DeSantis and his allies to void the contracts have resulted in lawsuits, with Disney suing Mr. DeSantis and the taxing district in federal court and the new appointees fighting back in state court.
On Wednesday, Judge Allen Winsor of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida in Tallahassee dismissed the Disney case in its entirety. The lawsuit accused Mr. DeSantis of “a relentless campaign to weaponize government power against Disney in retaliation for expressing a political viewpoint.” The campaign, the company added, “now threatens Disney’s business operations, jeopardizes its economic future in the region and violates its constitutional rights.”
But Judge Winsor found that the law giving Mr. DeSantis control of the special tax district was written in a way that, on its face, did not allow Disney to seek retaliation, primarily because Disney was not the only landowner concerned.
“It is well-settled law that ‘when a law is ostensibly constitutional, a plaintiff cannot challenge free speech by claiming that the legislators who passed it acted for a constitutionally impermissible purpose,'” he said. -he wrote in his decision.
Judge Winsor, appointed by President Donald J. Trump in 2019, added that Disney “faces the brunt of the damage” caused by the law, but not all of it, saying: “There is no “close enough” exception.
His decision aligned with arguments made in December hearings by Mr. DeSantis’s lawyers: it didn’t matter whether the governor’s action was retaliatory, only whether the subsequent state law stripping Disney of control was constitutional. .
In a statement, Disney said: “This is an important case with serious implications for the rule of law, and it will not stop there. If left unchallenged, this would set a dangerous precedent and allow states to use their official powers as a weapon to punish the expression of political views with which they disagree.
Mr. DeSantis and the tax district took victory laps.
“The Corporate Kingdom is over,” Jeremy Redfern, the governor’s spokesman, said in a statement. “The days of Disney controlling its own government and being placed above the law are long gone.”
Martin Garcia, an ally of Mr. DeSantis who took over as chairman of the fiscal district last year, said in an email that he was “delighted” with the decision and pledged to pursue “appropriate changes » in the way government departments at Disney World were run.
A lawyer for the taxing district, Charles J. Cooper, added in a statement that “Disney may own the land in the district, but it does not own the government.”
As part of his 17-page ruling, Judge Winsor said Disney also failed to demonstrate “any specific harm” resulting from the new tax district board’s actions. The only harm, he said, is that Disney now has to operate “under a board it can’t control,” which isn’t good enough.
While this is a significant setback for Disney, the move is unlikely to have an immediate impact on the relationship between the company and the Oversight Board. The state’s lawsuit remains active.
A state judge, Margaret Schreiber, denied Disney’s motion to dismiss the countersuit. In November, however, she granted Disney’s request to push back next phase of state case until March; Disney had accused the taxing district of dragging its feet in complying with discovery requests.
Disney has since filed a related lawsuit in state court, accusing the district of failing to comply with public records requests.
The tax district, created in 1967, was a crucial tool for the development of Disney World because it gave Disney unusual control over building permits, fire protection, policing, road maintenance and planning. development. Today, Disney World includes four theme parks, two water parks and 18 Disney-owned hotels with 267 pools. The resort employs around 75,000 people and attracts around 50 million visitors each year.
The growth plan that Disney put in place before Mr. DeSantis and his allies took control of the District — and which is at the center of the state’s legal battle — involves the possible construction of 14,000 hotel rooms additional, a fifth large theme park and three small theme parks. parks. The company said it would devote more than $17 billion to growing the resort over the next decade, an expansion that would create about 13,000 jobs within the company.
But Disney has threatened to scale back its ambitions in Florida, depending on the outcome of its battle for the tax district.
Calling Mr. DeSantis “anti-business” for his campaign against the company, Disney last year pulled the plug on an office complex planned to be built in Orlando at a cost of about $1 billion. That would have created more than 2,000 Disney jobs in the area, with an average salary of $120,000, according to an estimate from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.
Mr. DeSantis has enjoyed campaigning and fundraising against what he calls “woke” companies — primarily Disney — as well as targeting certain books and the former attorney general of Tampa, Fla., whom he removed from office. functions.
Disney had found hope for its own First Amendment case in a recent court decision involving Andrew H. Warren, the Tampa district attorney. This month, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, which tends to be conservative, ruled in favor of Mr. Warren, who was suing to get his job back, citing state protections. first amendment.
“The state cannot exercise its coercive power to censor so-called ‘woke’ speech with which it disagrees,” wrote Kevin C. Newsom, one of the appeals court judges.