A group representing journalists is supporting Walt Disney Parks and Resorts in a federal-court fight against Gov. Ron DeSantis, saying state retaliation against the entertainment company violated the First Amendment.
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The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group, filed court documents Friday arguing that U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor should reject a state request to dismiss a lawsuit that is part of a long-running feud between DeSantis and Disney.
The feud stems from Disney’s opposition to a 2022 state law that restricted instruction about gender identity and sexual orientation in public schools. Disney filed a federal lawsuit in April, alleging, in part, that the state had improperly retaliated against it.
“Here, the government conduct in question targets a public company, but if the state of Florida and its officials succeed in defending their actions against Disney in this case, governments across the country may be emboldened to take action against not only public companies, but journalists, reporters, and the greater news media when they exercise their First Amendment freedoms,” lawyers for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press wrote in one of the documents filed Friday.
The federal-court filings came on the same day that an Orange County circuit judge refused a request by Disney to dismiss a separate lawsuit filed in May by the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District.
DeSantis and Republican lawmakers this year created the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District to replace the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which Disney had effectively controlled for decades. DeSantis also was given the power to appoint board members for the revamped special district.
In the Orange County lawsuit, the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District is seeking a ruling that development agreements reached by Disney and the former Reedy Creek board are “null and void.” The agreements were approved shortly before the switch to the Central Florida Tourism Oversight Board.
Orange County Circuit Judge Margaret Schreiber on Friday issued a 14-page decision denying a Disney request to dismiss the case or put it on hold until the federal lawsuit is resolved.
In the federal lawsuit, Disney alleged constitutional violations rooted in retaliation by DeSantis and his political allies. A key issue is a state law passed this spring invalidating the disputed development agreements between Disney and the former Reedy Creek board.
Attorneys for the state filed a motion on June 26 seeking dismissal of the federal lawsuit on a series of grounds and took aim at what they described as a “sweetheart deal” that Disney enjoyed with the Reedy Creek district, which the state created in the 1960s. The motion said the state determined that Reedy Creek needed reform.
“Local taxes? Disney set them,” the motion said. “Building and safety codes? Disney set those, too. Caps on land development? Disney made the final call. Disney could exercise eminent domain, permitting it to annex territory even outside the District’s borders, all without legislative approval. It could build and operate an airport, or even a nuclear power plant.”
Disney is fighting the motion to dismiss the case and was backed Friday by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which requested approval to file a friend-of-the-court brief.
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The request and the accompanying brief focused on the possibility of a broader threat of retaliation against journalists or businesses that anger governments. The brief said DeSantis and other defendants are asking the court “to depart from fundamental First Amendment precedent that prohibits government retaliation against a private speaker for commentary perceived by the state as critical — as defendants have done here.”
“This is a significant First Amendment case,” the brief said. “One of the world’s largest companies has alleged that a state openly acted to punish it for speaking out on issues of public concern — and the state has admitted as much.”
(Editors note: The News Service of Flordia, or Action News Jax is not a member or donor to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.)
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