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Disney seeks to amend lawsuit against DeSantis to focus on free speech claim

Disney wants to narrow the scope of its federal lawsuit against Gov. Ron DeSantis to just a free speech claim that the Florida governor retaliated against the company because of its public opposition to a state law banning classroom lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity in early grades.

Disney on Friday asked a federal judge for permission to file an amended complaint focusing just on the First Amendment claim and leaving to another, state-court lawsuit questions about the legality of agreements the company signed with Disney World’s governing district — the former Reedy Creek Improvement District board (RCID) — then-made up of Disney supporters.

DeSantis in February effectively gained control of the RCID which he then reconstituted as the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District (CFTOD). The governor appointed five people to replace the elected members of the RCID, and mused that he might impose taxes on Disney’s hotels or even place a prison next to Walt Disney World.

Disney made an end run around that maneuver, stripping the RCID’s board of much of its power, by having predecessors signed a development agreement with the company that gave Disney maximum developmental power over the theme park resort’s 27,000 acres in central Florida.

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The agreements shifted control of design and construction at the theme park resort from the new DeSantis appointees on the board of the CFTOD, formerly the RCID, to Disney. The DeSantis appointees are now challenging the legality of the agreements in state court. DeSantis isn’t a party in the state court lawsuit.

“Disney faces concrete, imminent, and ongoing injury as a result of CFTOD’s new powers and composition, which are being used to punish Disney for expressing a political view,” said Disney’s federal court motion.

“Unconstitutional weaponization of government”

The revised complaint would challenge “this unconstitutional weaponization of government by seeking a declaratory judgment that will allow Disney to pursue its future in Florida free from the ongoing retaliatory actions of the CFTOD Board,” Disney said.

U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor on Friday rejected Disney’s motion to narrow the scope because of a procedural rule requiring Disney attorneys to confer with DeSantis’ attorneys before filing such a request. The judge said Disney could refile its request after complying with the court rule. An email seeking comment was sent to Disney attorneys on Sunday.

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The Disney request, as well as other recent motions filed in the state case, demonstrate how the fates of the two lawsuits have become intertwined, especially after Disney filed a counter-claim in the state case asserting many of the same claims made in the federal case. Disney filed the counter claim after the state court judge refused Disney’s request to dismiss the lawsuit.

The fight between DeSantis and Disney began last year after the company, facing significant pressure internally and externally, publicly opposed a state law banning classroom lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity in early grades, a policy critics call “Don’t Say Gay.”

The Walt Disney Co. in May pulled out of a roughly $1 billion investment in Florida, citing “changing business conditions.”

DeSantis, a candidate for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination,is seeking a dismissal of Disney’s lawsuit in Tallahassee federal court. The governor argues Disney is barred from filing a lawsuit because of legislative immunity protecting officials involved in the process of making laws and that the company lacks standing since it can’t show that it has been injured.

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