Disney First Amendment Lawsuit Against DeSantis Thrown Out By Federal Judge

2024-01-31 18:06:23

We have followed the fight between Disney and Governor Ron DeSantis since the start. The core of the fight was the State of Florida’s attempt to wrestle back control of the Reedy Creek District specially created for Disney, giving it government-within-a-government special status.

Disney claimed DeSantis was violating Disney’s rights as retaliation for Disney opposing DeSantis’ legislation restricting sexualized teaching in K-3 (falsely called the “Don’t Say Gay” law by propagandists). Disney sued claiming a violation of its First Amendment Rights. We covered the lawsuit in Disney sues DeSantis and Florida over Reedy Creek District Control:

The State of Florida passed legislation taking back control of the Reedy Creek District where Disney operates, effectively ending Disney’s unusual state-within-a-state autonomy. On the eve of the legislation taking effect, the District (controlled by Disney) passed restrictive covenants preserving their autonomy and nullifying the impact of the legislation.

Disney and anti-DeSantis Republicans crowed about how Disney had outsmarted DeSantis. But it’s not clear that Disney complied with all the legal requirements, including mailed notice to neighbors, to pass the restrictive covenants; DeSantis vowed to challenge Disney’s moves including through a new District resolution voiding the restrictive covenants and possible new legislation.

So now Disney has filed suit in federal court for the Northern District of Florida. The case is assigned to Chief Judge Mark Walker, who has ruled against other legislation promoted by DeSantis, such as the “Stop Woke Act,” using bombastic language including an analogy to George Orwell.

Here are the pleadings:

Complaint
Exhibit A – Development Agreement
Exhibit B – Restrictive Covenants

The Complaint focuses heavily on Disney’s free speech rights, framing everything that has happened as retaliation for its opposition to the various legislative initiatives from DeSantis taking on “wokeness.”

Subsequently a First Amended Complaint was filed adding more DeSantis statements to the allegations.

Perhaps pivotal, DeSantis made a motion for Judge Walker to remove himself from the case

DeSantis has just filed a Motion to Disqualify Judge Walker claiming that statements by the judge outside of Disney case about the Disney case indicate the outcome has been prejudged, creating an appearance of bias.

Surprisingly, Judge Walker did recuse himself, but on different grounds:

On June 1, 2023, Judge Walker denied the motion to disqualify but recused himself anyway because a relative owned 30 shares of Disney stock. In the Order, the Judge lambasted the motion as blatant judge shopping …

The recusal of Judge Walker may have been the single most important development in the case.

People like Vivek Ramaswamy wanted Disney to “have the last laugh” to make DeSantis look bad:

Judge Allen Winsor, a Trump appointee (not that it matters) whose nomination was opposed by a left-wing coalition, just issued an Order dismissing the case:

In 1967, Florida’s Legislature created the Reedy Creek Improvement District (RCID), a special improvement district in Central Florida. See Ch. 67-764, Laws of Fla. The district is perhaps best known as the home of Walt Disney World, which has operated there for decades. And as the district’s largest landowner, Disney1 has effectively controlled the district’s board, whose members were elected based on land ownership. That changed last year, after the Florida Legislature substantially amended the district’s governing structure. Now, Florida’s Governor selects the board members, subject to Senate confirmation. See Ch. 23-5, § 2(4)(1), Laws of Fla. As a result, Disney no longer controls the special improvement district in which it operates. (That district is now called the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, or CFTOD. See id. § 2(1).)

This change—which works to Disney’s significant detriment—came after Disney publicly criticized another Florida law, the Parental Rights in Education Act. In Disney’s view, this timing was no coincidence. Disney alleges that the Florida Legislature changed the district’s governing structure to punish it for its speech. The issue in this case is whether the Legislature’s action constituted unlawful retaliation against Disney’s speech in violation of the First Amendment.2

Defendants are the Governor, the Secretary of Florida’s Department of Commerce,3 and all members of CFTOD’s board. All Defendants moved to dismiss. The Governor and the Secretary argue lack of standing and Eleventh Amendment immunity. The CFTOD Defendants argue Disney’s claim fails on the merits. After a hearing, and having carefully considered the parties’ arguments, I now grant both motions.

In short, Disney lacks standing to sue the Governor or the Secretary, and its claims against the CFTOD Defendants fail on the merits because “when a statute is facially constitutional, a plaintiff cannot bring a free-speech challenge by claiming that the lawmakers who passed it acted with a constitutionally impermissible purpose.” In re Hubbard, 803 F.3d 1298, 1312 (11th Cir. 2015).

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