Walt Disney Co sued Florida Republican Governor Ron DeSantis on Wednesday, asking a court to overturn state efforts to control the Walt Disney World theme parks and intensifying a battle between a global entertainment giant and a potential US presidential contender.
The lawsuit marks the United States company’s response to escalating efforts by DeSantis and his supporters to exert power over Disney World, which draws millions of visitors every year to its massive amusement parks, the first of which opened in 1971.
Keep readinglist of 4 items
“The company is left with no choice but to file this lawsuit to protect its cast members, guests, and local development partners from a relentless campaign to weaponize government power against Disney in retaliation for expressing a political viewpoint unpopular with certain State officials,” Disney said in its lawsuit.
A DeSantis spokesman called Disney’s action “an unfortunate example of their hope to undermine the will of Florida voters”.
“We are unaware of any legal right that a company has to operate its own government or maintain special privileges not held by other businesses in the state,” DeSantis spokesman Jeremy Redfern said on Twitter.
The lawsuit alleges that a newly formed DeSantis-appointed tourist board violated Disney’s contract rights, and did so without just compensation and deprived it of due process. Disney also argues it was denied its rights to free speech under the First Amendment of the US Constitution. The company is asking the court to declare Florida’s legislative action unlawful.
The battle began last year after the company criticised a state law banning classroom discussion of sexuality and gender identity in schools.
Disney Chief Executive Bob Iger has called the retaliation against the company “anti-business” and “anti-Florida”. The company employs roughly 75,000 people in the state.
DeSantis, who is seen as a likely candidate for the Republican 2024 US presidential nomination, is currently travelling in Asia as part of a visit to several other countries.
Disney shares were up marginally on Wednesday afternoon.
State Republicans last year targeted Disney after it publicly clashed with DeSantis.
Florida lawmakers passed legislation that ended Disney’s virtual autonomy in developing 10,100 hectares (25,000 acres) in central Florida where its theme parks are located.
But before the takeover by DeSantis’s appointees, Disney pushed through changes to the special tax district agreement that limit the board’s action for decades.
Shortly before news of the lawsuit broke, Florida’s new oversight board said Disney’s plans for potential expansion of the Walt Disney World Resort did not comply with state law, and declared that agreement void.
The Central Florida Tourism Oversight Board unanimously supported an attorney’s findings of legal flaws in the developers’ agreement Disney reached in February with a previous board, including a lack of proper public notice.
“What our lawyers have told us is, factually and legally, what they created is an absolute legal mess,” said board Chairman Martin Garcia. “It will not work.”
The tussle could boost DeSantis’s support among US Republican voters, a Reuters/Ipsos poll found, but also hurt him among the wider electorate.
Seventy-three percent of respondents – including 82 percent of Democrats and 63 percent of Republicans – said they were less likely to support a political candidate who backs laws designed to punish a company for its political or cultural stances.