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DeSantis' retaliation against Disney hurts Florida, former governors and lawmakers say

People visit Magic Kingdom Park at Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, on Friday, April 22, 2022.
Ted Shaffrey
People visit Magic Kingdom Park at Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, on Friday, April 22, 2022.

Saying Gov. Ron DeSantis has followed the autocratic examples of governments in Russia and China, a group of mostly Republican former high-level government officials has called the Florida governor's takeover of Disney World's governing district "severely damaging to the political, social, and economic fabric of the State."

The group of former governors, U.S. House members and presidential administration officials filed a "friend of the court" brief on Wednesday in Disney's federal lawsuit against DeSantis and his appointees to the board of Disney World's governing district. Disney's lawsuit says the Republican governor violated the company's free speech rights by taking over the district after Disney publicly opposed Florida's so-called "Don't Say Gay" law, which banned classroom lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity in early grades.

The group's goal in filing the brief last week is to demonstrate "how the path the Governor has chosen is corrosive to the form of democracy envisioned by the Constitution, and to re-emphasize this Court's critical constitutional role in curbing the excesses of governance by retaliation," they said in a court filing.

Specifically, the group says that DeSantis' actions harm Florida economically because firms are being dissuaded from doing business in Florida since they could be subject to the governor's retaliatory whims if they ever voice disapproval over his policies. The group noted that Disney scrapped plans for a $1 billion campus in Orlando that would have relocated 2,000 employees from Southern California, following a year of attacks by DeSantis.

The group is made up of two former GOP governors, Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey and Arne Carlson of Minnesota; three former Republican U.S. House members, Tom Coleman of Missouri, Claudine Schneider of Rhode Island and Christopher Shays of Connecticut; and a host of attorneys, commissioners, chiefs of staff and other officials from previous Democratic and Republican presidential administrations.

DeSantis' actions were retribution with a goal of discouraging Disney and others from opposing his policies in the future, said the officials who compared the takeover to autocratic actions taken in Russian and China.

"The fact that Governor DeSantis has taken these anti-democratic actions so blatantly and brazenly — that he is proud of them — only makes them all the more damaging to the political and social fabric of Florida and the country as a whole," they said.

An email seeking comment was sent Sunday morning to a spokesperson for the governor's office in Tallahassee. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press also has filed a brief in support of Disney, arguing that a win by the Florida governor would embolden other governments across the U.S. to take actions against journalists and other media when they exercise their First Amendment rights.

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.

DeSantis appointees took control of the Disney World district earlier this year following a yearlong feud between the company and DeSantis. The fight began last year after Disney, beset by 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."

As punishment, Republican lawmakers passed legislation reconstituting the district and DeSantis appointed a new board of supervisors to oversee municipal services for the sprawling theme parks and hotels. Disney sued DeSantis and his five board appointees in federal court, saying the governor violated the company's free speech rights by taking the retaliatory action.

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Mike Schneider - Associated Press