Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Walt Disney World are locked in an ongoing feud.
Disney sued the governor, alleging he unlawfully targeted Disney for expressing protected speech.
Statements in DeSantis' bestselling memoir may hold the proof Disney needs to win its case.
Walt Disney Parks and Resorts US Inc. sued DeSantis last week, alleging that the Republican lawmaker engaged in a "targeted campaign of government retaliation" against Disney, "weaponizing" his government power against the company for expressing protected, political speech.
The lawsuit comes after more than a year of increasing animosity between the likely 2024 presidential hopeful and the mega-corporation. Disney drew DeSantis' ire after its executives publicly rebuked the passage of the Florida Parental Rights in Education Bill, which prohibits public school instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity and which critics dubbed the "Don't Say Gay" Act.
In the ensuing months, DeSantis has repeatedly threatened Disney's special tax district in the state and with the help of the legislature has since taken control of the district, installing his own board. The move may have backfired, however, after Disney invoked an obscure property law that essentially stripped the governor-appointed board members of their power.
The board he appointed to oversee the area countersued Walt Disney World earlier this week.
The bitter conflict has threatened Disney's business operations and jeopardized its economic future in the state, the company alleged in its April complaint against DeSantis.
In addition to supporting legislation against Disney, DeSantis has also frequently and fervently railed against the "woke" company. The governor even devoted a chapter in his recently-released memoir, "The Courage to be Free," to detailing his fight with Disney — which the corporation quoted generously throughout its lawsuit.
The governor's office did not immediately respond to Insider's request for comment. However, DeSantis has previously said that Disney was free to take a position on the bill but "they are not free to force all of us to subsidize their activism, and that's what they were doing."
The legal battle between the two is likely to hinge on whether Disney can prove the Republican governor targeted the company because of its comments on the Parental Rights in Education Bill, speech that is protected by the First Amendment.
"If it was unequivocally clear that the whole purpose of a law was to retaliate against Disney for its executives' statements, that's a First Amendment violation," David Schultz, a visiting professor at the University of Minnesota law school, who has taught constitutional law, told Insider last month.
DeSantis divulged the gritty details in his memoir
The Disney lawsuit cites four direct passages from DeSantis' February book, suggesting the governor's own writing on the matter as evidence of his alleged targeted and retaliatory attack against the company.
The lawsuit cites a part of DeSantis' memoir where he recounted his critiques of Disney's speech, arguing that the governor petitioned action against the company specifically because it spoke out. The claim quotes the memoir, saying: "In promising to work to repeal the bill," he asserted, "the company was pledging a frontal assault on a duly enacted law of the State of Florida." As a consequence of its disfavored speech and petitioning, he declared, "[t]hings got worse for Disney."
The Disney complaint carefully lays out the DeSantis v. Disney timeline, quoting the governor's literary musings on his efforts to rid the company of its special tax district: "I needed to be sure that the Legislature would be willing to tackle the potentially thorny issue involving the state's most powerful company. I asked the House Speaker, Chris Sprowls, if he would be willing to do it, and Chris was interested. 'OK, here's the deal,' I told him. 'We need to work on this in a very tight circle, and there can be no leaks. We need the element of surprise — nobody can see this coming.'"
The Disney lawsuit also takes umbrage with DeSantis' focus on solely punishing Disney, citing his memoir in which "he admitted that he 'found' that there was this 'handful of other districts' that 'also deserved scrutiny' only after his 'staff worked with the legislative staff in the House' to target Disney."
The complaint quotes DeSantis' memoir one final time, alleging he publicly attacked Disney with "pride:" "Nobody saw it coming, and Disney did not have enough time to put its army of high-powered lobbyists to work to try to derail the bill. That the Legislature agreed to take it up would have been unthinkable just a few months before. Disney had clearly crossed a line in its support of indoctrinating very young schoolchildren in woke gender identity politics."
As promotion for his memoir, DeSantis also penned a February Wall Street Journal editorial entitled "Why I Stood up to Disney." In the April lawsuit, Disney suggested the editorial "explicitly" connected the efforts to undermine the company's power in the state to its decision to speak out against the Parental Rights in Education Act, once again, letting DeSantis' own words speak for himself.
"When corporations try to use their economic power to advance a woke agenda, they become political, and not merely economic, actors. In such an environment, reflexively deferring to big business effectively surrenders the political battlefield to the militant left. … Leaders must stand up and fight back when big corporations make the mistake, as Disney did, of using their economic might to advance a political agenda. We are making Florida the state where the economy flourishes because we are the state where woke goes to die."
Disney combed through months of DeSantis attacks
Throughout the 74-page lawsuit, Disney cites dozens of additional quotes, comments, and statements directly from the governor to argue its case that DeSantis unlawfully sought to punish the company because he did not like what it had to say, including:
During a March 29, 2022 press conference, DeSantis threatened Disney directly: "I think they crossed the line. We're going to make sure we're fighting back when people are threatening our parents and threatening our kids."
In a June 6, 2022 interview, DeSantis recounted having previously warned Disney not to get involved in the public debate over the Parental Rights in Education bill, saying: "I though[t] it was a mistake for Disney to get involved and I told them, 'You shouldn't get involved, it's not going to work out well for you.'"
While discussing the legislation that rid Disney of its self-governing status during a September 15, 2022 speech, DeSantis clearly connected the bill to Disney's protected speech: "'We took action'" after Disney made 'the mistake' of opposing the [Parental Rights in Education] legislation."
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