Disney asks judge to dismiss DeSantis-appointed board's lawsuit in latest tit-for-tat

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Disney on Tuesday asked a state judge to dismiss a lawsuit filed by a governing board appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis to oversee Disney World, claiming the company has been the victim of the “weaponizing” powers of government aimed at punishing it for opposing a law dubbed “Don't Say Gay” by critics.

Disney's motion to dismiss filed in state court in Orlando was the latest twist in legal battles being played out in federal and state courts among the entertainment giant, DeSantis and the DeSantis-appointed Central Florida Tourism Oversight District. The fight is over who controls the special governing district which decides what gets built at Disney World and runs the municipal-like services on the 25,000 acres that make up the theme park resort.

“Just over a year ago, Disney expressed a political view that Governor DeSantis did not like. In response, the Governor unleashed a campaign of retaliation, weaponizing the power of government to punish Disney for its protected speech,” Disney said in the motion.

The lawsuit Disney is seeking to dismiss was filed by the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District earlier this month in Orange County, Florida. It seeks to void agreements Disney made with previous board members made up of Disney supporters before the new DeSantis-appointed board members held their first meeting.

The agreements gave design and construction authority to the company, which the DeSantis-appointed supervisors said stripped them of power. The DeSantis-appointed board's lawsuit said the agreements “reek of a backroom deal,” weren't properly noticed and that the Disney supporters unlawfully delegated governmental authority to a private entity.

In the company's motion Tuesday, Disney defended the deals. When “faced with a newly hostile state administration,” Disney executed the deals to protect its investments in central Florida, including billions of dollars in new projects and thousands of jobs, the company said.

Last month, Disney filed a First Amendment lawsuit against DeSantis and the DeSantis-appointed board in federal court, asking a federal judge to void the governor’s takeover of the theme park district, as well as the oversight board’s actions, on the grounds that they were violations of company’s free speech rights.

Disney and DeSantis have been engaged in a tug-of-war for more than a year that has engulfed the GOP governor in criticism as he prepares to launch an expected presidential bid in the coming weeks.

The feud started last year after Disney, in the face of significant pressure, publicly opposed a state law that bans classroom lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity in early grades, a policy critics call “Don’t Say Gay.”

As punishment, DeSantis took over Disney World’s self-governing district through legislation passed by Florida lawmakers and appointed a new board of supervisors. Before the new board came in, the company signed the agreements with the old board, stripping the new supervisors of design and construction authority.

In response, the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature passed legislation allowing the DeSantis-appointed board to repeal the Disney agreements and made the theme park resort's monorail system subject to state inspection when it previously had been done in-house.

The new legislation repealing the Disney agreements makes the state court lawsuit moot, and litigation filed first in federal court takes priority over subsequent litigation in state court if both cases are dealing with similar issues and parties, under Florida law, Disney said in Tuesday's motion arguing for the state lawsuit to be dismissed.

The creation of Disney’s self-governing district by the Florida Legislature was instrumental in the company’s decision in the 1960s to build near Orlando. The company had told the state at the time that it planned to build a futuristic city that would include a transit system and urban planning innovations, so the company needed autonomy in building and deciding how to use the land. The futuristic city never materialized and instead morphed into a second theme park that opened in 1982.


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