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Disney sues DeSantis

Walt Disney Parks and Resorts on Wednesday sued Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his hand-picked oversight board, accusing the Republican 2024 presidential prospect of weaponizing his political power to punish the company for exercising its free speech rights.

The lawsuit was filed in federal court minutes after the board appointed by DeSantis to oversee Disney’s special taxing district sought to claw back its power from the entertainment giant, voting to invalidate an agreement struck between Disney and the previous board in February, just before that board’s dissolution.

“What they created is an absolute legal mess, OK? It will not work,” said Martin Garcia, chairman of the DeSantis-picked Central Florida Tourism Oversight District board of supervisors.

Wednesday’s moves are the latest escalation in the fight between DeSantis and Disney as DeSantis moves toward a 2024 presidential bid.

Disney responded by suing DeSantis, the board and Florida Department of Economic Opportunity acting secretary Meredith Ivey, seeking to block the board’s moves.

The lawsuit characterizes Wednesday’s vote as the “latest strike” in “a targeted campaign of government retaliation – orchestrated at every step by Governor DeSantis as punishment for Disney’s protected speech.”

It says DeSantis’ retaliation “now threatens Disney’s business operations, jeopardizes its economic future in the region, and violates its constitutional rights.”

“Disney finds itself in this regrettable position because it expressed a viewpoint the Governor and his allies did not like. Disney wishes that things could have been resolved a different way,” the lawsuit says. “But Disney also knows that it is fortunate to have the resources to take a stand against the State’s retaliation – a stand smaller businesses and individuals might not be able to take when the State comes after them for expressing their own views. In America, the government cannot punish you for speaking your mind.”

The board’s move Wednesday was expected, and board members in previous meetings had previewed its argument over why it saw the agreement as invalid. In March, the board hired a team of law firms to represent the district in “potential legal challenges” with Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, signaling that DeSantis’ appointees anticipated the fight was headed to the court room.

Disney CEO Bob Iger hinted at the entertainment giant’s case against the state when he told shareholders earlier this month that “the company has a right to freedom of speech just like individuals do.”

“The governor got very angry about the position that Disney took, and it seems like he’s decided to retaliate against us. … in effect, to seek to punish a company for its exercise of a constitutional right,” Iger said. “And that just seems really wrong to me – against any company or individual, but particularly against a company that means so much to the state that you live in.”

The fight now shifts to the courts, where Disney, in its 77-page lawsuit, is seeking an injunction that would block the board from exercising the power DeSantis and the Republican-led legislature sought to hand it.

“We are unaware of any legal right that a company has to operate its own government or maintain special privileges not held by other businesses in the state,” DeSantis communications director Taryn Fenske said. “This lawsuit is yet another unfortunate example of their hope to undermine the will of the Florida voters and operate outside the bounds of the law.”

DeSantis, speaking at a news conference in Jerusalem, blasted Disney’s lawsuit against him Thursday, saying the company did not “want to pay the same taxes as everybody else.”

“I don’t think the suit has merit. I think it’s political,” DeSantis said, accusing the entertainment giant of being “upset that they are actually having to live by the same rules as everybody else.”

The yearlong fight has strained what had long been a cozy relationship between Florida’s government and the state’s best-known employer and attraction of tourist dollars. DeSantis earlier this month suggested the state could build a prison or competing theme park on what had for decades been Disney-controlled property.

The Florida governor’s battle with Disney has become a flashpoint in the early stages of the 2024 Republican presidential primary. Former President Donald Trump and a slew of other candidates and potential rivals, including former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, have lambasted DeSantis for his actions, characterizing them as anti-business.

After a hearing in which several business owners, including those who run restaurants and bars at Disney World locations, urged the board to work with Disney, Garcia said the board would seek to raise taxes to pay for its legal fees in evaluating and combatting what he called “eleventh hour agreements.”

“Because that’s going to cost us money, we’re going to have to raise taxes to pay for that,” Garcia said. CNN

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