Disney on Wednesday sued Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, alleging his administration’s takeover of its theme park district is part of “a targeted campaign of government retaliation” for its opposition to a law barring discussion of homosexuality in schools.
The move is the latest salvo in an increasingly bitter fight between the entertainment giant and DeSantis, a Republican presidential hopeful for 2024 who has denounced Disney as a “woke” corporation — a call aimed at pleasing his right-wing supporters.
The lawsuit, filed in a federal court in Florida, names DeSantis and other members of the conservative governor’s administration.
“A targeted campaign of government retaliation — orchestrated at every step by Governor DeSantis as punishment for Disney’s protected speech — now threatens Disney’s business operations, jeopardizes its economic future in the region, and violates its constitutional rights,” it says.
Disney attracted the governor’s ire last year after it criticized a law banning school lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity.
After initially keeping mum on the issue, Disney came under pressure from its creative workforce, and vowed to help repeal the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law, which campaigners say stigmatizes LGBTQ youth.
DeSantis seized control of Walt Disney World’s self-governing district in February, and has openly mused about hiking taxes on the company, imposing seemingly punitive safety inspections or even building a prison next to the theme park.
On Wednesday, a DeSantis-appointed panel voted to vacate agreements that gave Disney effective powers of self-governance at its huge complex near Orlando, which employs 75,000 people and attracts 50 million visitors annually, including many from around the world, bringing billions of dollars into the Sunshine State’s economy.
Moments later, the company hit back.
“There is no room for disagreement about what happened here: Disney expressed its opinion on state legislation and was then punished by the State for doing so,” the filing says.
The firm is asking the court to void DeSantis’s legal moves, and declare them unlawful and unenforceable.
Disney said its size and resources meant it was able to take action like this, and acknowledged that many smaller companies would not be able to stand up to a coordinated state campaign.
But it cast itself as defending fundamental rights.
“In America, the government cannot punish you for speaking your mind,” the lawsuit said.
Disney chief Bob Iger told shareholders this month that DeSantis’s behavior “seems really wrong.”
“A company has a right to freedom of speech just like individuals do,” he added.
Disney has announced plans to invest more than $17 billion in Disney World in the coming decade, a move it projects will create more than 10,000 new jobs over the next decade, while attracting even more tourist money to Florida.
“Any action that thwarts those efforts simply to retaliate for a position the company took sounds not just anti-business, but it sounds anti-Florida,” Iger said.
Disney says it is one of the state’s biggest employers and one of the region’s largest contributors to public coffers, having paid $1.1 billion in state and local taxes last year.
Walt Disney World is the largest theme park in the world and has operated since it opened in the 1970s under the Disney-controlled Reedy Creek Improvement District, an authority independent of the state and local counties with broad local management autonomy that exempted it from most state regulations.
DeSantis has positioned himself as the leading Republican alternative to Donald Trump for the 2024 presidential nomination.
A darling of the populist right, the 44-year-old — who has not yet formally entered the White House race — has devoted much of his time as governor to bashing Democrats for liberalism and “wokeness.”
DeSantis’s education initiatives and other measures, such as a proposal to allow Floridians to carry concealed weapons without a permit or training, place him firmly on his party’s right wing.