Explainer: Legal arguments in today’s high stakes showdown between Disney and DeSantis

by | Dec 12, 2023

In a court case that has garnered national attention, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals is set to hear oral arguments today in the legal battle between entertainment giant Disney and the State of Florida. At the heart of the dispute is a question of free speech and state sovereignty, pitting what Disney says are its First Amendment rights against legislative actions by Florida’s government.

The controversy began when Florida’s legislature restructured the Reedy Creek Improvement District, a special governing entity that has long granted Disney certain autonomous powers in land development. This legislative move followed Disney’s public criticism of Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Act, leading Disney to allege that the restructuring was retaliatory, aimed at punishing it for its political stance.

Disney’s Argument: The House of Mouse argues that the restructuring was a targeted attack on its free speech rights, constituting a clear case of governmental retaliation for expressing views contrary to those held by the state’s leadership. The entertainment company contends that this not only violates the First Amendment’s protection against viewpoint discrimination but also sets a dangerous precedent where businesses could be punished for their political expressions.

Florida’s Counterargument: The State of Florida, defending its legislative action, argues that the restructuring of the Reedy Creek Improvement District does not infringe upon Disney’s First Amendment rights. It asserts that the laws in question were not exclusively aimed at Disney, but also affected other entities, including other special districts and businesses other than Disney operating inside the former Reedy Creek Improvement District. Therefore, the state claims, the law does not constitute a specific attack on Disney’s free speech. The state maintains that the legislature’s move is an exercise of its sovereign power to structure and manage governmental entities as it sees fit, a right reserved under the Constitution.

What the 11th Circuit Will Decide: The 11th Circuit Court faces the complex task of balancing two fundamental aspects of American jurisprudence: the right to free speech and the power of a state to govern its affairs. The key questions before the court are whether the restructuring of the Reedy Creek Improvement District was indeed a retaliatory act against Disney for its protected speech, and if so, whether this retaliation constitutes a violation of the First Amendment.

The court’s decision will not only impact the immediate future of Disney’s operations in Florida but also set a significant legal precedent. It will clarify the extent to which a state can exercise its powers when such actions intersect with the free speech rights of corporations. This decision could have far-reaching implications for how businesses engage in political discourse and how states respond to such engagement.


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