Disney Sues Florida Government for First Amendment Violation

Written By: Leanna Arjune

The Beginning and End of Reedy Creek
In 1967, four years before the Walt Disney World Company (Disney) opened its first theme park in Florida, Governor Claude Kirk signed HB 486 into law. This established the Reedy Creek Improvement District, encompassing 38.5 square miles and the municipalities of Reedy Creek (today Lake Buena Vista) and Bay Lake, Florida. Disney owns most of the land and uses it to build their numerous theme parks and resorts. Until 2023, Disney controlled the district’s board, giving them much of the same authority as a municipal government. They were responsible for providing power, water, roads, and fire protection in the district, and residents of the surrounding Orange and Osceola counties would not have to pay taxes towards those services.

In 2022, Governor Ron DeSantis passed HB 1557, known as the Parental Rights in Education Act. This bill prohibited classroom instruction and limited discussion on gender identity and sexual orientation. Disney spoke out, stating the bill “should have never been passed” and that they were supporting anyone working toward repealing it. Just over two weeks later, the Senate filed SB 4-C, a bill dissolving “any independent special district established by a special act prior to . . . 1968.” This included the Reedy Creek Improvement District and five other smaller districts.

One year later, Governor DeSantis passed HB 9-B, reestablishing the district under a new name, the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District (CFTOD), and changing much of the district’s powers. Instead of the landowners appointing board members, the Governor had to appoint them subject to Senate confirmation. An employee or anyone related to an employee of a “business entity that owns or operates a theme park or entertainment complex” could not join the board. In other words, Disney no longer had any of its employees on the board and lost all control over the district.

Disney Fights Back

In federal court, Disney brought Governor DeSantis, the Secretary of Florida’s Department of Commerce, and all member of CFTOD’s board in an action alleging “unlawful retaliation against Disney’s speech in violation of the First Amendment.” Disney challenged the new governing structure of the district that stripped them of all power, claiming this was put in place due to their statement on HB 1557. On January 31, 2024, Judge Allen Winsor in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida Tallahassee Division granted motions to dismiss.

The court dismissed claims against the Governor and the Secretary with prejudice for lack of subject matter jurisdiction because Disney lacked standing for them. The court held Disney’s constitutional injury was not traceable to the Governor and Secretary. Although the Governor is the one, by law, who selects board members, the court held the injury would exist regardless of whether he controlled the board. Disney seeks injunctive relief, requiring it to “allege an imminent future injury.” Because the Governor already appointed a board, the court held there was no action they could take against him to redress future harm and change Disney’s current situation. Disney also lacked standing with the Secretary because the Secretary’s duties did not affect the authority of the CFTOD’s board. The Secretary’s only duty related to the matter was “maintaining the Official List of Special Districts.”

The court, however, held Disney had standing for the CFTOD board members. Disney’s loss of control was considered “enough to constitute a constitutional injury,” and the “injury is clearly traceable to the board that now makes land-use decisions affecting Disney.” The board also had redressability because “an injunction precluding the CFTOD board from exercising its authority would redress Disney’s injury, at least in part.”

Turning to the merits of the claim against the CFTOD’s board, the court dismissed the case for failure to state a claim. The court held if a law is facially constitutional, it should ignore any retaliatory motive for “respect for the political process” and “simple comity between departments of government.” The court primarily looked at Ala. Educ. Ass’n v. Bentley (In re Hubbard) and United States v. O’Brien for its holding. In O’Brien, the Supreme Court noted the “ ‘hazardous’ nature of inquiring into legislative motive” when a plaintiff violated a federal statute of knowingly destroying certain certificates by burning his Selective Service registration to protest the Vietnam War. Because Congress could have a legitimate reason for the statute, the Court would not consider the actual motivation. Applying this ruling to Hubbard, the Eleventh Circuit held an Alabama statute restricting payroll deductions for public-employee union dues was constitutional notwithstanding an “alleged retaliatory motive that Alabama’s lawmakers had.” More recently, the Eleventh Circuit reiterated its holding in NetChoice, LLC v. Attorney General of Florida, which held “courts shouldn’t look to a law’s legislative history to find an illegitimate motivation for an otherwise constitutional statute.”

The Tallahassee Division found that SB 9-B was facially constitutional because “no one reading the text of the challenged laws would suppose them directed against Disney.” The law affected other landowners within the district and other districts, to a much lesser degree. The court conceded “Disney faces the brunt of the harm,” but Disney failed to support an argument of making the court decide “how many others a law must cover to avoid ‘singling out’ those they affect most.” Further, even if there was significant evidence of illicit motivation, the court held Disney had no cognizable claim because the law was otherwise constitutional.

Journey to the Eleventh Circuit

The day after the court’s order, Disney filed a Notice of Appeal to the Eleventh Circuit. A Disney spokesperson said:

This is an important case with serious implications for the rule of law, and it will not end here. If left unchallenged, this would set a dangerous precedent and give license to states to weaponize their official powers to punish the expression of political viewpoints they disagree with. We are determined to press forward with our case.

The Eleventh Circuit has a strong legal precedent of ignoring congressional intent. However, their opinion could change given the clear connection of the state’s actions against a major corporation in line with expressed viewpoints. This case could even make its way to the Supreme Court. O’Brien, the Supreme Court case the Eleventh Circuit relied on in its previous holdings, is based off burning an almost irreplaceable document in the 1960’s. Disney’s claims tie political control directly to free speech. There might be a cognizable reason for dissolving the district beyond Disney’s stated reasons, but this time, that may not be enough.


2022 Fla. Laws Ch. 2022-266 (also known as Fla. SB 4-C).

2023 Fla. Laws Ch. 2023-173 (also known as Fla. HB 9-B).


About Us, CITY OF BAY LAKE (last visited Feb. 11, 2024).

About Us, CITY OF LAKE BUENA VISTA (last visited Feb. 11, 2024).

Ala. Educ. Ass’n v. Bentley, 803 F.3d 1298 (11th Cir. 2015).

History, CENTRAL FLORIDA TOURISM OVERSIGHT DISTRICT (last visited Feb. 11, 2024).

Madlin Mekelburg, Disney Appeals Dismissal of Free-Speech Suit Against DeSantis, BLOOMBERG NEWS (Feb. 1, 2024).

NetChoice, LLC v. Atty. Gen., Fla., 34 F.4th 1196 (11th Cir. 2022).

Parental Rights in Education Act, 2022 Fla. Laws Ch. 2022-22 (also known as Fla. HB 1557). (amended FLA. STAT. §1001.42 (2022))

Reedy Creek Improvement District, 1967 Fla. Laws Ch. 67-764.

Statement from The Walt Disney Company on Signing of Florida Legislation, THE WALT DISNEY CO. (Mar. 28, 2022).

The Fla. S. Bill Analysis and Fiscal Impact Statement, SB 4-C (Apr. 19, 2022).

The Fla. S. Bill Analysis and Fiscal Impact Statement, HB 9-B (Feb. 9, 2023).

United States v. O’Brien, 391 U.S. 367 (1968).

Walt Disney Parks and Resorts U.S., Inc., v. DeSantis, No. 4:23-cv-1623-AW-MJF, 2024 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 23022 (N.D. Fla. Jan. 31, 2024), appeal filed Feb. 1, 2024.