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Disney on defense

The company makes a free speech claim against the Florida governor, who fires back in court

A statue of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse at Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. Associated Press/Photo by John Raoux, File

Disney on defense

In 2023, fans look forward to many new attractions around the parks of Walt Disney World, including a Moana-themed water ride, a Tron-themed roller coaster, and the reopening of Splash Mountain as Tiana’s Bayou Adventure. But if Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis follows through on recent comments, arriving families may see something more austere on the way in: a state prison.

The Walt Disney Company filed suit against the Republican governor and probable presidential candidate last week after DeSantis-supported legislation dissolved the company’s 56-year-old self-governing district. The move opens the company to more taxes and less control over its 25,000 acres of Florida land. Disney claims that DeSantis pushed legislators to remove its district’s status to punish the company for publicly denouncing the Parental Rights in Education Act, dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by critics. The act protects public school students in kindergarten through third grade from class instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity. Last month the state board of education approved a plan to extend those protections to all K-12 grades.

When Walt Disney bought 43 square miles of Central Florida swamplands in 1965, he became the largest landowner in the state. Legislators recognized the massive tourism opportunity a Disney theme park presented and passed the 1967 Reedy Creek Enabling Act. The legislation designated Disney’s 25,000 acres as the Reedy Creek Improvement District and gave the company authority to develop and govern the land. The company received full control of utilities and infrastructure including water, sewage, roads, bridges, emergency services, and waste management.

In short, the act gave The Walt Disney Company the power of a county government. The special tax designation allowed Disney to receive municipal bonds because of how much tourism the company draws and exempted the company from following zoning laws and holding government inspections.

DeSantis announced his intention to dissolve the company’s special district in April 2022 and signed legislation on Feb. 27 transferring authority to the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District Board. ​​

“One corporation having its own government in central Florida is no longer in the best interests of the state,” he said during an April 17 news conference. He discussed potential plans for 40 acres of government land near Disney World, saying, “People have said maybe create a state park, maybe try to do more amusement parks. Somebody even said, maybe you need another state prison, who knows? I just think that the possibilities are endless.”

Florida maintains 1,941 other special tax districts. In its suit, Disney asks the federal court to reinstate its long-held special district status. “It is a clear violation of Disney’s federal constitutional rights … for the state to inflict a concerted campaign of retaliation because the company expressed an opinion with which the government disagreed,” the suit contends. Disney specifically mentions violations under the Constitution’s contracts clause, takings clause, due process clause, and the First Amendment. “In America,” the suit continues, “the government cannot punish you for speaking your mind.”

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a free speech advocacy organization, agrees with Disney’s claim of a free speech violation. “Disney has a strong First Amendment claim,” Aaron Terr, FIRE director of public advocacy, said in a written comment. “Nobody has a ‘right’ to a tax exemption, a government contract, or public employment, but imagine if the government could snatch these things away from you just for speaking your mind,” Terr added. “We wouldn’t have freedom of speech.”

With the government takeover, DeSantis removed the previous district governing committee and personally appointed new board members, creating the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District. On Monday, the DeSantis-appointed board voted unanimously to file a countersuit. “Since Disney sued us, we have no choice now but to respond,” Martin Garcia, chair of the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District Board said at a meeting. “We will seek justice in our own backyard.”

Christina Grube

Christina Grube is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute.


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