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Disney’s lawsuit creates an important new problem for DeSantis

In its new lawsuit in response to Ron DeSantis, Disney's lawyers argued, “In America, the government cannot punish you for speaking your mind.”


It started with a seemingly inconsequential corporate statement. Gov. Ron DeSantis last year signed a proposal critics have labeled the “Don’t Say Gay” policy, and Disney, a powerhouse in the Sunshine State, eventually criticized the anti-LGBTQ measure.

In a normal political environment, the governor might’ve defended his position and expressed his disagreement with Florida’s largest private employer, at which point the relevant players would’ve moved on. But in DeSantis Land, there’s nothing especially normal about politics: The far-right governor responded to the modest criticism by picking an ugly and prolonged fight with Disney, in part to punish the corporate giant for daring to disagree with him in public, and in part to send a signal to others that he’d retaliate against anyone who challenges his positions.

Disney CEO Bob Iger spoke at an annual shareholder meeting earlier this month, noting that the dispute began by the company exercising its right to take a public position on a matter of public debate.

“The governor got very angry about the position Disney took and seems like he’s decided to retaliate against us, including the naming of a new board to oversee the property and the business,” the executive said. “In effect, to seek to punish a company for its exercise of a constitutional right. And that just seems really wrong to me.”

That was three weeks ago. Yesterday, as NBC News reported, Disney took those same concerns to a federal courthouse.

The Walt Disney Co. on Wednesday filed a lawsuit in federal court against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and other officials alleging a “targeted campaign of government retaliation” after the company publicly opposed a state law that critics call “Don’t Say Gay.”

By any fair measure, the litigation was largely unavoidable. The GOP governor, enraged by a relatively brief and inconsequential corporate press release issued 13 months ago, continued to take retaliatory steps against Disney — trying to take control over the Reedy Creek Improvement District, vowing new hotel taxes and toll roads, and last week, even raising the prospect of putting a new state prison near the company’s Orlando-area theme park.

“Disney regrets that it has come to this,” Disney’s attorney’s argued in the newly filed lawsuit. “But having exhausted efforts to seek a resolution, the Company is left with no choice but to file this lawsuit to protect its cast members, guests, and local development partners from a relentless campaign to weaponize government power against Disney in retaliation for expressing a political viewpoint unpopular with certain State officials.”

The civil suit added, “In America, the government cannot punish you for speaking your mind.”

While litigation between a corporate giant and a state is inevitably going to be complex, the underlying question in this case is actually rather simple: Did DeSantis and his Republican allies use government power to retaliate against a specific company because it expressed an opinion they didn't like?

Legal experts can speak to this with far more authority than I can, but reading Disney’s court filing, it’s filled with an amazing number of quotes that seem to show that the GOP governor and his legislative partners specifically targeting Disney because it bothered them.

A Washington Post analysis, noting the importance of the case, added this case “could have major consequences not just for the 2024 race, but for the GOP’s newfound appetite for cracking down on corporations it doesn’t like.”

For his part, DeSantis criticized the lawsuit, dismissing it as "political," though I'm not altogether sure what that means in this context.

Time will tell who’ll prevail, but it’s worth noting for context that the far-right governor has picked all kinds of provocative fights that have ended up in court, and DeSantis has struggled badly.

That’s not great news for Florida taxpayers, who have to pick up the tab when DeSantis’ policies fail to withstand legal scrutiny.

This post revises our related earlier coverage.