ORLANDO, Fla. – A legal advocacy group for journalists wants to get involved in Disney's free speech lawsuit against Gov. Ron DeSantis. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press says a win by the Florida governor could embolden other governments across the U.S. to take actions against journalists and other media when they exercise their First Amendment rights.
The group on Friday asked a judge for permission to file a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the claims brought by Disney against DeSantis, his appointees to a special district board governing Disney World and a state economic development agency. The lawsuit claims the Florida governor violated the company's free speech rights by taking control over the district in retaliation for Disney's public opposition to the so-called “Don't Say Gay” bill.
The committee said that the impact of a DeSantis win would be felt beyond the 39 square miles (101 square kilometers) of the Disney World property governed by the new appointees picked by the Florida governor to the governing district's board.
“If Defendants prevail in this case, those on whose behalf the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press advocates will be first in the line of fire given the nature of reporting and the press’s role in our constitutional system,” the committee said in its request to file the supporting brief in federal court in Tallahassee. “As such, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press’s proposed brief provides a voice to those not directly involved, but undoubtedly impacted by this case.”
DeSantis and Florida's Department of Economic Opportunity have argued that Disney's case should be dismissed because of sovereign immunity protection against being sued for conducting government business, and that Disney hasn't shown how it has been hurt so it lacks standing to sue the state government defendants.
DeSantis has used the fight with Disney to burnish his “anti-woke” credentials and demonstrate his ability to push a conservative agenda during his campaign for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination.
The DeSantis appointees took over the Disney World governing board 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, DeSantis took over the district through legislation passed by Florida lawmakers and appointed a new board of supervisors to oversee municipal services for the sprawling theme parks and hotels.
If the retaliatory actions by DeSantis and Republican lawmakers are left unchecked, it poses a threat to watchdog journalism and press coverage of public issues “to the detriment to the free flow of information on matters of public concern that has long been the hallmark of our democratic system of government,” the committee said.
Before the new board came in, Disney made agreements with previous oversight board members who were Disney supporters that stripped the new supervisors of their authority over design and development. The DeSantis-appointed members of the governing district have sued Disney in state court in a second lawsuit stemming from the district's takeover, seeking to invalidate those agreements.
Disney had asked for the case be dismissed or delayed pending the outcome of the federal lawsuit. However, Circuit Judge Margaret Schreiber in Orlando on Friday refused to toss or postpone the case, saying among other reasons that to do so would have created “an undue delay” for the district, which still must continue governing. ___
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