by Tom Hals
WILMINGTON, Delaware (Reuters) – Now that the year-long war of words between Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and the Walt Disney Co has gone to court, the Republican leader may find his verbal criticisms of the entertainment giant back on track. bite, legal experts said.
Disney sued DeSantis on Wednesday to prevent the state from ending the company’s virtual autonomy in central Florida, where it has its theme parks.
The lawsuit comes a year after the company criticized a Florida law that prohibits classroom discussion of sexuality and gender identity with younger children, prompting DeSantis to repeatedly attack “Woke Disney.”
Disney said DeSantis’ actions amounted to a “targeted campaign of government retaliation.”
The company’s 73-page lawsuit is filled with blunt warnings from DeSantis’ memoirs, fundraising material, interviews and announcements that the entertainment giant had “crossed the line” in the realm of politics and had to be checked.
Ken Paulson, a professor at Middle Tennessee State University, said the governor may come to regret his attacks on the company.
“There’s a very good chance he’s going to pay for them in a court of law,” said Paulson, director of the school’s Free Speech Center.
DeSantis called Disney’s lawsuit a politically motivated attack and accused the company of not being held accountable.
The governor’s spokesman said Wednesday that his office was not aware of any legal rights that would allow a company to operate its own government or maintain special privileges, a reference to the decades-old district that is home to Disney World.
Legal experts said DeSantis may have strong political reasons for reconstituting the authority formerly known as the Reedy Creek Improvement District, but if Disney can show it was done in retaliation, the company has a strong case.
Fallout between Florida’s largest employer and its presidential-wielding governor began last year.
Under pressure from its employees, Disney spoke out against the Parents’ Rights in Education Act that prohibited discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity among young students, dubbed by critics as the “no-nonsense” bill. say gay”.
DeSantis struck back, leading the Republican legislature to eventually seize control of the special district company that helped develop Disney World.
Disney claimed in its lawsuit that the state adopted a “targeted campaign of government retaliation, orchestrated at every turn by Governor DeSantis as punishment for Disney’s protected speech.”
The US Supreme Court in a 2010 case known as Citizens United ruled that the government could not limit political speech by corporations and other entities under the First Amendment to the US Constitution.
HISTORY AND CONTEXT
For Disney to prevail, a jury would have to find a connection between the company’s comments and changes to the development district, renamed under DeSantis’ control as the Central Florida Tourism Supervisory District.
DeSantis can argue that the government has given the company special tax breaks over the years and Florida has the right to change that.
But Leslie Kendrick, director of the Center for the First Amendment at the University of Virginia School of Law, said it will all come down to the reason for the changes.
“First Amendment law would say that’s problematic if it’s done because of the speaker’s protected speech,” Kendrick said.
DeSantis’ harsh speech toward Disney is quoted throughout the lawsuit, including 18 quotes referring to some form of “wake up Disney.”
The lawsuit cites an op-ed DeSantis wrote for the Wall Street Journal in which he said that when companies like Disney use their power to “advance a woke agenda,” leaders must strike back or turn over “the political battlefield to the militant left”.
Legal experts said that examples of retaliation for political speech often involve state employees.
One business example Kendrick cited involved a newspaper tax imposed on publications with a circulation of 20,000 in Louisiana in 1934, influenced by the state’s powerful senator, Huey Long. The law was largely seen as punishing a student newspaper that criticized the former governor, even though it affected 13 publications, many of which sued.
The lawsuit over the tax eventually reached the US Supreme Court, which overturned it in a case known as Grosjean v American Press Co.
The judges said the tax was seen as a deliberate attempt to limit the dissemination of information and that the way the law was developed was “suspicious.”
“The story and the context really matter,” Kendrick said. “If there is evidence that he did it for First Amendment reasons, to punish the speaker, then we have a problem.”
(Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Matthew Lewis)