Disney’s Lawsuit Against Ron DeSantis Dismissed by Federal Judge, but Challenges Persist

A federal judge in Tallahassee dismissed Disney’s free speech lawsuit against Florida Governor Ron DeSantis on Wednesday, shifting the company’s focus to a separate state court challenge for control of the district governing Walt Disney World. Judge Allen Winsor ruled that Disney lacked standing in its First Amendment lawsuit against the governor, the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity’s secretary, and DeSantis’ appointees to the Disney World governing district. Disney contended that a law signed by DeSantis transferring control of the district was retaliation for the company opposing the state’s “don’t say gay” law. A separate lawsuit on this matter is still pending in state court in Orlando.

Disney had argued that the law, signed by DeSantis and backed by the Republican-controlled Legislature, which shifted control of the Disney World governing district to DeSantis appointees, was a response to the company’s public opposition to the state’s “don’t say gay” law. This 2022 law prohibited classroom discussions on sexual orientation and gender identity in early grades, championed by DeSantis, who has since suspended his 2024 GOP presidential nomination campaign. Disney supporters had managed the district’s municipal services, including firefighting, planning, and mosquito control, for over five decades.

Judge Winsor, appointed by former President Trump in 2019, stated in his decision that when a law is facially constitutional, plaintiffs cannot challenge it on free speech grounds based on perceived unconstitutional motives. Disney’s claim, seeking to prove that lawmakers acted with unconstitutional motives, was deemed legally insufficient. Although not explicitly stating an appeal, Disney announced its intention to “press forward with our case,” emphasizing its importance for the rule of law. Disney’s statement asserted that allowing this decision to stand would set a dangerous precedent, enabling states to misuse official powers against political expressions they disagree with.

In response, Governor DeSantis’ press secretary, Jeremy Redfern, applauded the judge’s decision, supporting the belief that Disney should not control its own government. Redfern emphasized that Disney’s era of having its own government above the law has ended, signaling a continued legal battle over the governance of Walt Disney World’s district.