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Disney just cast Ron DeSantis as the villain in a story of good versus evil.
After more than a year-long battle with the bombastic Florida governor, the entertainment behemoth filed a blistering lawsuit in federal court, not mincing words as it alleged that it had been the victim of a “targeted campaign of government retaliation” for having the gall to speak out against the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
“Disney regrets that it has come to this,” the company said in its lawsuit, arguing that it found itself in the “regrettable position” because it “expressed a viewpoint the governor and his allies did not like.” Disney added, “In America, the government cannot punish you for speaking your mind.”
The lawsuit, the culmination of ever-growing hostilities between the Magic Kingdom and Sunshine State, was filed moments after a DeSantis-appointed board moved to recover power it had lost over Disney’s special taxing district. Earlier this year, Disney quietly outmaneuvered the board and struck a decades-long deal to ensure it retained authority over the land around its sprawling Orlando-area theme parks.
DeSantis responded to the lawsuit by issuing a statement through his communications director, Taryn Fenske. “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,” 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.”
Speaking at a press conference in Jerusalem Thursday, DeSantis blasted Disney, 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, adding that Floridians understood that Disney’s tax status was an issue in last November’s elections. “And not only did they re-elect me, but we did better in that area of the state than any Republican has done in quite some time.”
Regardless of what the DeSantis team is saying, legal experts CNN spoke to on Wednesday signaled that Disney is on firm footing.
“It’s a serious First Amendment case,” Floyd Abrams, the renowned First Amendment attorney of Pentagon Papers fame, told CNN. Abrams said he expected the case to survive a motion to dismiss by Florida.
Ted Boutrous, the First Amendment attorney, agreed, saying that Disney had put together “a powerful complaint.” Boutrous said that Disney’s “First Amendment arguments are extremely strong.”
“DeSantis has admitted — indeed bragged about — retaliating against Disney to punish it for its speech on an issue of public concern and importance,” Boutrous added. “That is a classic First Amendment violation.”
Rebecca Tushnet, the Frank Stanton Professor of First Amendment Law at Harvard Law School, noted to me that the “retaliatory campaign” was “not subtle.” Tushnet said Disney “has a strong case, both under the First Amendment and potentially for violation of its property rights that the state is trying to destroy.”
The irony in all of this, as pointed out by RonNell Andersen Jones, the Lee E. Teitelbaum Chair and Professor of Law at the University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney College of Law, is that corporations enjoy expanded speech rights because of conservative justices on the Supreme Court.
“This lawsuit flips the political script and gives us a corporate free-speech suit that doesn’t fit the pattern of advancing that conservative agenda,” Jones said.
While DeSantis faces an uphill legal battle, the anti-Disney narrative has played well in the right-wing media universe, where facts take a back seat to hyperbole. In this alternative ecosystem, Disney has been portrayed for months as a “woke” organization seeking to “groom” children with what they characterize as a radical LGBTQ agenda.
Yes, really. The family-friendly, fun-for-everyone, intentionally inoffensive brand has been demonized by politicians like DeSantis and others who have played to the Fox News cameras to raise their own profiles. The truth is that characterizing Disney as a creepy company that aims to morally bankrupt kids has become a mainstream position in GOP media circles.
DeSantis knows this — which is why he was happy to pick this battle with the company. But now that he will be forced to defend it in court, where the laws of reality apply, the war of his own choosing could very well cost him.
— Richard Allen Greene in Jerusalem contributed reporting.