Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday reacted to a lawsuit brought against him by Disney, describing it as a political move that lacks merit, while accusing the company of lacking accountability and transparency.
DeSantis made the remarks during a press conference in Israel, where he faced questions on the lawsuit, the latest move by Disney in a long-running dispute over DeSantis’s efforts to revoke the company’s special legal and economic privileges.
“I don’t think the suit has merit, I think it’s political,” DeSantis told reporters in Jerusalem.
Disney sued DeSantis on April 26, accusing his administration of “weaponizing its power to inflict political punishment” on the company for its opposition to the Florida governor’s Parental Rights in Education legislation, which banned instruction of gender identity and sexual orientation in public schools for kindergarten through third grade.
Speaking to reporters in Jerusalem, DeSantis said that the special privileges that had been granted to Disney in how it administered the special district where Disney World is located was “not good for the state of Florida.”
“They had no transparency, no accountability, none of that, and that arrangement was not good for the state of Florida,” DeSantis said.
“We did not think that that should continue, so we now have brought accountability,” he added.
Disney did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Disney has accused the Florida state government of an unlawful crackdown for expressing an opinion that it says should be protected under free speech laws.
The company has accused DeSantis of engaging in “a targeted campaign of government retaliation” as “punishment for Disney’s protected speech,” according to the complaint (pdf), filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northwestern District of Florida.
“At the Governor’s bidding, the State’s oversight board has purported to ‘void’ publicly noticed and duly agreed development contracts, which had laid the foundation for billions of Disney’s investment dollars and thousands of jobs,” the complaint reads. It also claims that the move was “patently retaliatory, patently anti-business, and patently unconstitutional.”
The complaint states that DeSantis doesn’t plan to stop there, noting that his team “also planned ‘to look at things like taxes on the hotels,’ ‘tolls on the roads,’ ‘developing some of the property that the district owns with more amusement parks,’ and even putting a ‘state prison’ next to Disney World.’”
The complaint quotes DeSantis as saying, “Who knows, I just think the possibilities are endless.”
DeSantis’s Communications Director Taryn Fenske told The Epoch Times in a statement, “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.”
“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,” Fenske added.
Disney Calls for Repeal
The long-running controversy stems from Disney’s full-throated opposition to a law dubbed by its opponents as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
In March 2022, Florida lawmakers passed HB 1557, or the Parental Rights in Education act, which was signed into law by DeSantis on March 28 of that year.
The same day DeSantis signed the bill, Disney waded into the controversy, issuing a statement that was highly critical of the measure and saying it was the company’s objective to have it repealed.
“Florida’s HB 1557, also known as the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill, should never have passed and should never have been signed into law,” the statement reads.
Disney stated at the time that it was the company’s goal “for this law to be repealed by the legislature or struck down in the courts.”
Supporters of the legislation have argued that it gives parents more power to decide how and when topics relating to LGBT issues can be introduced to their children. It also gives parents the opportunity to sue school districts for violating the rules set out in the legislation.
“Classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards,” the measure (pdf) reads.
On the day he signed the bill into law, DeSantis said that “parents have every right to be informed about services offered to their child at school and should be protected from schools using classroom instruction to sexualize their kids as young as 5 years old.”
Disney’s declaration of opposition to the bill prompted some parent groups to call for boycotts of the company’s products, movies, theme parks, and shows.
In April 2022, DeSantis retaliated with a threat to repeal the 1967 Reedy Creek Improvement Act, which established a special jurisdiction and taxing district for Disney World.
The escalation continued until Disney finally filed its lawsuit.
Patricia Tolson contributed to this report.