Disney Narrows DeSantis US Lawsuit to Focus on Free Speech

(Bloomberg) -- Walt Disney Co. narrowed its federal lawsuit against Ron DeSantis and his political allies to focus only on a First Amendment claim that the Florida governor retaliated against the company for criticizing his policies.

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Disney amended its case Thursday by dropping claims that DeSantis and his backers breached the company’s contractual rights, took property without compensation and violated its due process rights in a yearlong dispute over a special tax district that includes Disney World. The filing doesn’t affect a parallel state lawsuit between Disney and DeSantis, who is seeking the Republican nomination for the White House.

The remaining federal claim will focus on allegations that DeSantis punished Disney for opposing a measure championed by the governor that restricted classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity, which critics have called the “Don’t Say Gay” law.

“This is as clear a case of retaliation and weaponization of government as this court is ever likely to see,” Disney said in the lawsuit in federal court in Tallahassee, Florida.

In a statement, the company said it will “continue to fight vigorously to defend these contracts, because these agreements will determine whether or not Disney can invest billions of dollars and generate thousands of new jobs in Florida.”

DeSantis called the move by Disney a “surrender” and said the company lacks the legal authority to sue the state over the remaining issues in the cases.

“The governor welcomes Disney’s surrender on all of its claims challenging his legislative acts,” a spokesperson for DeSantis said in a statement.

The feud that began with rhetoric over the gender identity law escalated when DeSantis tried to seize control of a local governing jurisdiction that gave Disney autonomy to manage day-to-day operations of Disney World and its other Central Florida theme parks. But Disney was able to outmaneuver the governor by quietly pushing through changes that weakened the municipal authority hand-picked by DeSantis.

Members of the DeSantis-appointed supervisory board sued Disney in state court in May, accusing the company of violating the law in its attempts to prevent the board from governing park operations. Disney filed a counterclaim months later, seeking a court order requiring the board to comply with development contracts approved by an earlier version of the board, controlled by Disney.

--With assistance from Christopher Palmeri.

(Updates with Disney statement.)

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