Disney’s free speech lawsuit against Ron DeSantis gets a boost from appeals court ruling in a separate case

A decision last week by a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that revived a First Amendment challenge by former prosecutor Andrew Warren, who was suspended by DeSantis, should support Disney’s arguments against the governor, the company said Thursday in a court filing.

“The same values are at stake here,” Disney said.

After DeSantis and the Republican-led Legislature took control of the governing district of Walt Disney World near Orlando, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts filed a First Amendment lawsuit in federal court in Tallahassee last year against DeSantis and his appointees to the district’s governing board. Before DeSantis appointed the new members to the board, it had been controlled by Disney supporters for more than five decades.

Disney claims its free speech rights were violated in retaliation for the company opposing the state’s new so-called Don’t Say Gay law, which bans classroom lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity in early grades. The law was championed by DeSantis, who is seeking the Republican nomination to run for president .

The governor’s attorneys have argued that the case should be dismissed, claiming DeSantis is immune since he doesn’t enforce any of the laws that removed supervision of the government from the Disney supporters.

A decision by the judge on whether the case should be dismissed could help determine who controls the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, which performs municipal services such as planning, mosquito control and firefighting in the roughly 40 square miles (100 square kilometers) in central Florida that make up Disney World.

In response to Disney’s court filing last week, the DeSantis appointees contend that the Tampa prosecutor’s free speech case is different from Disney’s lawsuit. The prosecutor’s case dealt with actions taken by the governor, whereas Disney’s lawsuit involves legislation passed by the Legislature, the appointees said in a court filing.

“Unlike a challenge to one official’s unilateral action, Disney challenges laws enacted by a majority of lawmakers in both houses of the Florida Legislature and approved by both of Florida’s political branches,” the appointees said.

In its decision last week, the appeals court panel sent Warren’s case back to a trial judge in Tallahassee to determine whether the governor’s suspension was improperly focused on statements Warren signed along with other prosecutors opposing certain legislation to criminalize abortion and gender-affirming health care.

DeSantis cited those advocacy statements in his August 2022 suspension of Warren, a Democrat whom the governor replaced with Republican Suzy Lopez as the Tampa-based state attorney.

After his appeals court victory last week, Warren’s lawyers asked that the case be wrapped up quickly so he can decide whether to seek reelection as state attorney. Warren’s attorneys have asked the appeals judges to speed up deadlines for any subsequent filings and to immediately send the case back to the Tallahassee federal judge for a final decision. If the judge rules in Warren’s favor, he could get his prosecutor job back.

“One year remains on Mr. Warren’s term, and it should not be consumed by unnecessary delays in legal proceedings,” his lawyers wrote.

The 11th Circuit ordered DeSantis’ attorneys to respond to the request by Wednesday.

Disney and DeSantis’ board appointees are also involved in a state court lawsuit over control of the district.


Associated Press writer Curt Anderson in St. Petersburg, Florida, contributed to this report.

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