From Kingdom to Courtroom:  Disney’s First Amendment Claims Against Florida Governor DeSantis Dismissed

Isabelle Ortiz-LuisNews & Insights

On January 31, 2024, a federal judge dismissed Disney’s lawsuit against Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. The entertainment giant alleged its First Amendment rights were violated under the state’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, which prohibits in-class discussion on sexual orientation or gender identity between kindergarten to twelfth grade.[1]  When Disney took a public stance against the law,  DeSantis stripped Disney of its prestigious authority under the Reedy Creek Improvement District.[2]

For more than 55 years, the Reedy Creek Improvement District empowered Disney with the ability to self-govern, independent of approval from the city of Orlando.[3] Disney executives and Florida’s officials established an agreement by which Disney maintained control over roads, public utilities, zoning, building regulations, and even its own nuclear power plant.[4]The justification for such significant authority lies in Disney’s unparalleled contribution to Florida’s economy; during the fiscal year 2022, Disney contributed $40.3 billion to the statewide economy, both directly and indirectly through its supply chain and employee expenditures.[5] Additionally, Disney played a crucial role in funding public services by generating $6.6 billion in taxes for the year.[6] Of this amount, $3.1 billion came from state and local taxes attributable to Disney, its visitors, employees, and affiliated businesses.[7] Moreover, Disney sustained over 263,000 jobs in Florida, encompassing positions held by local residents directly employed by the company as well as those supported by guest spending off-site and other indirect impacts.[8] Without the influence of Disney, Florida’s unemployment rate would increase from 3% to 5.4%.[9]

Following the company’s decision to halt political donations in Florida and its commitment to advocating for the law’s repeal,[10] DeSantis dissolved Reedy Creek, renamed it to the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, and replaced five of its active board members with new selections that he picked himself.[11] The change in structure was coupled with the removal of diversity, equity, and inclusion programs within the district.[12] 

In response, Disney sued DeSantis in federal court on April 26, 2023, alleging unconstitutional retaliation for criticizing the controversial law that restricts free speech.[13] Disney asked that the court declare its contracts remain in effect and sought injunctive relief.[14]  DeSantis countersued in Florida state court, arguing that Disney lacked authority to enter into those contracts and that the prior board had failed to give proper notice that it was crafting them.[15] Last month, Disney filed counterclaims seeking damages over the board’s alleged breach of its contracts, asking the court to order the district to comply with the deals.[16]

The federal judge’s dismissal of Disney’s lawsuit marks a significant victory for the governor. The court granted DeSantis’s motion to dismiss finding that Disney failed to lacked standing and failed on the merits standing. [17]  To establish standing, three elements must be met: there must be an injury, the injury must be fairly traceable to the challenged action of the defendant and the injury must be likely to be redressed by a favorable decision.[18]  The court concluded that Disney could not demonstrate any specific injury from any board action,[19] and that its loss of control over the district did not constitute a constitutional injury that could be redressed with “an injunction precluding the Governor from influencing the board.”[20]  Additionally, the court ruled that Disney’s claim failed on the merits because the challenged statute was facially constitutional, thus precluding the argument that it had been drafted “with a constitutionally impermissible purpose.”[21]

Disney made clear its intentions to continue to challenge this holding in order to prevent against “ a dangerous precedent” that could  enable other governments “to weaponize their official powers to punish the expression of political viewpoints they disagree with.”[22] Disney has already filed an appeal to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, to which Governor DeSantis maintains that Disney once again alleges privileges beyond the scope of its rights as a corporation.[23]  As the legal saga unfolds, it remains to be seen how this landmark decision will shape future interactions between corporations and governmental authority, particularly concerning matters of free speech and political expression.


[1] Alison Durkee, Disney Suit Against DeSantis Thrown Out, Forbes (Jan. 31, 2024), https://www.forbes.com/sites/alisondurkee/2024/01/31/judge-dismisses-disneys-lawsuit-against-desantis/?sh=19ec41a51132.

[2] Jacob Schumer, The Contractual Impossibility of Unwinding Disney’s Reedy Creek, Bloomberg Tax (Apr. 26, 2022),

https://news.bloombergtax.com/tax-insights-and-commentary/the-contractual-impossibility-of-unwinding-disneys-reedy-creek.

[3] Valerie Boey, Disney Co. vs. Gov. DeSantis: Florida governor threatens Reedy Creek Act after ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill critiques, Fox 35 Orlando(Apr. 1, 2022), https://www.fox35orlando.com/news/disney-co-vs-gov-desantis-florida-governor-threatens-reedy-creek-act-after-dont-say-gay-bill-critiques.

[4] Id.

[5] Tourism Consulting Team, Disney’s Effect on Fueling Florida Economy, Jobs and Tourism, Oxford Economics (Nov. 14, 2023), https://www.oxfordeconomics.com/resource/disneys-effect-on-fueling-florida-economy-jobs-and-tourism/.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Suzanne Rowan Kelleher, Disney World Adds $40 Billion To Florida’s Economy, Forbes (Nov. 15, 2023),https://www.forbes.com/sites/suzannerowankelleher/2023/11/15/disney-world-40-billion-floridas-economy/?sh=22a6a90260b8.

[10] Andrew Atterbury, Disney pledges to stop Florida campaign donations over ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill, Politico (Mar. 11, 2022), Politico, https://www.politico.com/news/2022/03/11/disney-pledges-to-stop-florida-campaign-donations-dont-say-gay-00016705#:~:text=TALLAHASSEE%2C%20Fla.,’t%20Say%20Gay%E2%80%9D%20bill.

[11] Winston Cho, Disney to Keep Perks Under Florida Bill Allowing Gov. Ron DeSantis to Assume Control of Special Tax District, Hollywood Reporter (Feb. 7, 2023), https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/business/business-news/disney-to-keep-special-perks-under-florida-bill-allowing-gov-ron-desantis-to-assume-control-of-special-tax-district-1235320186/.

[12] Douglas Soule, ‘Dismayed:’ DeSantis’ Disney district admin rebuked by ‘betrayed’ civil rights group, USA Today (Aug. 3, 2023), https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2023/08/03/urban-league-betrayed-by-desantis-disney-director-glen-gilzean-after-dei-cuts/70518147007/.

[13] Brooks Barnes, Disney Changes Gears in Suits Against DeSantis and Allies, NY Times (Sept. 1, 2023), https://www.nytimes.com/2023/09/01/business/disney-desantis-lawsuit.html?searchResultPosition=1.

[14] Kevin Breuninger, DeSantis board asks court to dismiss Disney’s counterclaims in contract clash, CNBC (Sept. 7, 2023),https://www.cnbc.com/2023/09/07/desantis-board-hits-back-at-disney-in-legal-fight.html.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Order Granting Motions to Dismiss, Case No. 4:23-cv-163-AW-MJF,  https://www.flgov.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/01/Dismissal-Order.pdf.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Winston Cho, Disney Lawsuit Against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis Dismissed By Judge, Hollywood Reporter (Jan. 31, 2024), https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/business/business-news/disney-lawsuit-against-florida-gov-ron-desantis-special-district-dismissed-1235811663/.

[21] Supra note 17 at 3.

[22] Rob Wile, Disney files appeal after federal judge dismissed its lawsuit against DeSantis, NBC News (Jan. 31, 2024), https://www.nbcnews.com/business/business-news/disney-lawsuit-against-desantis-dismissed-why-explainer-rcna136622.

[23] Id.