Disney lawsuit shows Ron DeSantis at his bullying, bumbling worst
No one needs to pay hard-earned cash to be entertained by a Disney product anymore.
Not as of Wednesday, when the giant entertainment conglomerate filed a federal lawsuit to quash the efforts of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to punish it for speaking out against DeSantis' "don't say gay" law.
The 77-page legal complaint, filed in federal court in Gainesville, Florida, aims to stop what it terms "a targeted campaign of government retaliation — orchestrated at every step by Gov. DeSantis as punishment for Disney's protected speech."
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That campaign, the lawsuit says, "threatens Disney's business operations, jeopardizes its economic future in the region, and violates its constitutional rights."
Whether Disney can make that claim stick in federal court is anyone's guess. But its filing makes a good case that the only thing that DeSantis and his entourage find objectionable about the company is its speech, and specifically its objection to the "don't say gay" law.
DeSantis didn't complain about Disney in any way before that. He certainly didn't refuse Disney's $107,000 in contributions to his political campaigns. Nor did Florida Republicans refuse any of the $7.6 million in contributions they've received from the company over the last 20 years or so. They started copping an attitude about Disney only when they figured it would be a high-profile foil in their campaigns against "wokeness."
The outlines of the Disney-DeSantis fight have been well chewed over at this point. It's the personal swipes buried within the company's legal filing that entertain and amuse. More on those in a moment.
Background: First, let's recap. At issue is Walt Disney Co.'s public criticism of Florida's Parental Rights in Education law, which was signed by DeSantis in March 2022.
The law, dubbed "don't say gay" by its critics, suppresses, even outlaws, discussions about "sexual orientation or gender identity" in Florida schools through third grade and places limits on those discussions in upper grades.
The law was part of DeSantis' campaign to eradicate what he called "woke" ideology from Florida, a stance plainly designed to appeal to a conservative voting bloc as he prepared to seek the GOP nomination for president.
Under its former chief executive, Bob Chapek, Disney at first remained silent about the measure, despite its reputation for accommodating LGBTQ+ people among its employees and park visitors. Chapek finally bowed to pressure from Disney workers and others and came out against the law.
DeSantis promptly struck back. He moved to revoke Disney's near-dictatorial control over the 43-square-mile site of Walt Disney World and its related theme parks and resorts outside Orlando.
Through the Reedy Creek Improvement District, governed by Disney and created in a deal between the company and Florida's then-Republican governor, Claude Kirk, in 1967, Disney has kept the site in manicured comeliness for more than a half-century.
DeSantis' efforts to take control of the district ran into a roadblock, however. Days before he signed a law turning the district over to a handpicked board of political stooges, Disney signed long-term development contracts with the district's preexisting board (comprising handpicked Disney stooges) that preserved the company's development rights for decades to come.
DeSantis hasn't ceased bellyaching about being outmaneuvered by Disney's lawyers. He has claimed that the development contracts aren't legal and threatened to take actions in the district that Disney won't like.
At one point, he even raised the prospect of building a state prison on unused land within the tract, which would obviously do wonders for preserving the allure of Florida's No. 1 tourist attraction.
On Wednesday, DeSantis' board voted to declare the development contracts "void and unenforceable." Disney knew this was coming and filed the lawsuit immediately.
Now let's examine Disney's case, as laid out in its lawsuit.
First, the company claims credit for turning central Florida from a godforsaken wasteland into a thriving economic engine for the entire state. It's hard to argue with that.
"The State of Florida has flourished in the years since Walt Disney himself surveyed many acres of swampland in 1963 and dreamed of the possibility of Walt Disney World," the lawsuit says. (You have to love that crack about "swampland.")
The filing notes that Disney employs more than 75,000 Floridians at its parks complex and is "one of Central Florida's largest taxpayers, with more than $1.1 billion paid in state and local taxes last year."
Disney warns that DeSantis tampers with that engine at his peril. The company says it plans to invest more than $17 billion in Walt Disney World over the next decade, producing 13,000 new jobs.
There you have it: In its lawsuit, Disney also documents how DeSantis and his Republican sycophants in the state Legislature have been leading with their collective chin by stating overtly that they're aiming to punish Disney for speaking its corporate mind.
"They have proudly declared that Disney deserves this fate because of what Disney said," the lawsuit states, producing "as clear a case of retaliation as this Court is ever likely to see."
It's hard to believe the Republicans could be that stupid, but there you have it. The company quotes one of the sponsors of the Reedy Creek dissolution bill as saying, "This bill does target one company. It targets the Walt Disney Company."
The lawsuit also documents the increasingly febrile and fatuous claims by DeSantis about Disney's ideology.
"Disney ... clearly crossed a line in its support of indoctrinating very young schoolchildren in woke gender identity politics," DeSantis wrote in his recently published memoir, "The Courage to Be Free."
In the same book, DeSantis called Disney's outspokenness about the "don't say gay" law "a textbook example of when a corporation should stay out of politics." In the same book, by the way, DeSantis writes that Disney "has a massive presence in Florida but is headquartered in the leftist enclave of Burbank, California."
Question: Has DeSantis ever been to Burbank, California? Maybe he's confusing it with Berkeley, California.
One almost sympathizes with DeSantis. His presidential aspirations are up in the air. That's partially because he has turned out to be a risibly maladroit politician whenever he has ventured outside the confines of his hothouse of a state, and partially because he's got all the charisma of a linoleum floor. That's not good when you're trying to supplant Donald Trump, who can attract wall-to-wall media coverage while taking a midafternoon siesta.
DeSantis' anti-Disney campaign appears to be showing its seams. Republicans outside Florida are skeptical about taking on a corporation that is far more popular among ordinary Americans than he is, and appears to have much better lawyers too.
In the meantime, the rest of us can sit back and enjoy the show, and we don't have to pay $10.99 a month for Disney+ to stream it on TV, either.
— Michael Hiltzik is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.