Speed Reads

Mad about the Mouse

Disney has an 'extremely strong' case DeSantis is 'weaponizing' the state to punish free speech, lawyers say

The feud between Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and the Walt Disney Co. has grown from a skirmish to a war of attrition, and now it's headed to federal court. Disney filed suit against DeSantis on Wednesday, arguing that his government's actions against the company's Disney World kingdom are "patently retaliatory, patently anti-business, and patently unconstitutional." 

"Disney now is forced to defend itself against a State weaponizing its power to inflict political punishment," the lawsuit says.

Disney filed its 77-page lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Tallahassee minutes after the board DeSantis installed to oversee Disney World's special tax district voted to nullify a binding measure enacted by the Disney-picked board it supplanted that ceded most power to Disney. DeSantis, through the Florida legislature, took control of the board after Disney criticized his so-called "Don't Say Gay" education law.

Disney argues that DeSantis' "targeted campaign of government retaliation" violates its First Amendment rights. The company is asking a federal judge to void the DeSantis government's takeover of the district.

A DeSantis spokeswoman said Disney has no "legal right" to "special privileges," and its lawsuit is "yet another unfortunate example of their hope to undermine the will of the Florida voters."

"In America, the government cannot punish you for speaking your mind," Disney's lawsuit says. And "there is no room for disagreement about what happened here: Disney expressed its opinion on state legislation and was then punished by the State for doing so."

"It's a serious First Amendment case," First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams told CNN Business. Disney's "First Amendment arguments are extremely strong," agreed Ted Boutros, another lawyer specializing in free speech. "DeSantis has admitted — indeed bragged about — retaliating against Disney to punish it for its speech on an issue of public concern and importance," which is "a classic First Amendment violation."

Rebecca Tushnet, a First Amendment expert at Harvard Law School, told CNN Business that Disney "has a strong case, both under the First Amendment and potentially for violation of its property rights."

A protracted legal battle will bleed into DeSantis' presumptive 2024 presidential run. His GOP rivals have already begun mocking him — former Gov. Nikki Haley on Wednesday pointedly invited Disney to move its operations and 70,000 jobs north to her native South Carolina — and unaffiliated Republican strategists suggested DeSantis isn't winning.

"DeSantis essentially picked the fight," GOP strategist Doug Heye told The Washington Post. "So when you pick the fight and then you lose it, it's very easy to see real problems." Sarah Longwell, another GOP strategist and publisher of The Bulwark, said DeSantis has successfully branded himself a "culture warrior" but he's not as astute at picking fights as the GOP frontrunner. "Donald Trump chooses enemies that the voters are pretty attached to being against," like the "deep state" and "elites," she said, and compared with those targets, DeSantis' war on Disney "starts to look a little silly."