Constitutional law experts: Disney could ‘absolutely’ sue Florida for retaliation

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — On Friday, Gov. Ron DeSantis traveled to South Florida to sign, among other things, the bill that set into motion the dismantling of Disney’s 55-year-old Reedy Creek Improvement District.

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During his victory lap, the Republican took a moment to remind the crowd gathered in front of him about the reason Florida’s most powerful company found itself in the crosshairs a few days before.

“You’re going to marshal your economic might to attack the parents of my state,” he said. “We view that as a provocation, and we’re going to fight back against that.”

READ: DeSantis signs bill to dissolve Disney’s self-governing power

Elsewhere, the corporation’s lawyers may have been taking notes.

Since Tuesday, questions have swirled about whether or not the procedures used by the state’s Legislature to pass this bill were legal. Some parts of Florida’s laws call for a vote to be held by residents within a district or its delegation. Lawyers who specialize in special districts agree that those sections of the law didn’t apply to this case, and the government was on solid legal footing.

However, a different set of attorneys — focusing on constitutional law — believe the House of Mouse has an excellent shot at a First Amendment lawsuit, should it desire one.

READ: Disney World in Texas? Houston-area judge attempts to lure company from Florida to Lone Star State

“Once the government provides a benefit, that benefit can’t be taken away in a way that is unconstitutional,” Lawrence Walters, managing partner of Longwood-based Walters Law Group said. “In other words, the government cannot retaliate against the company in response to the exercise of the company’s First Amendment rights.”

Two other attorneys agreed with Walters, with one adding that the state’s actions resembled the playbook of an authoritarian country like Russia.

“You have a government, with all the resources of a government, striking out … simply for exercising their right to have an opinion,” Glen Torcivia, shareholder of West Palm-based Torcivia, Donlon, Goddeau & Rubin, explained.

READ: DeSantis takes on Disney’s self-governance: Central Florida reacts

Some Republicans, including DeSantis, appeared to realize the danger their early statements put them in. Many interviews throughout the week steered heavily in the direction of good governance and proper oversight, which Torcivia and Walters said was the state’s best possible defense.

Stetson University Law Professor Paul Boudreaux added another advantage Florida would have: Disney would be challenging legislation voted on by a large group of people, each with their own motivations.

“You have to prove the retaliation was done for this specific purpose,” he said.

READ: ‘Blatant attempt to rig districts’: Black lawmakers condemn DeSantis-approved congressional map

However, Torcivia reckoned it would be difficult to put the toothpaste back in the tube, especially when so many comments were made on camera.

“I’m fairly certain that Disney would have an excellent case, and a really great chance of winning a case,” he said.

If the company did go down this path, an injunction against the law would be the first step sought, which Torcivia said would be granted in a matter of weeks.

READ: Disney’s defense against Reedy Creek dissolution might not be easy

However, he, along with many others, theorized that Disney would likely pursue negotiations with lawmakers to alter the terms of the Reedy Creek district when the regular session resumes in March.

As of Friday afternoon, Disney had not commented on the law, or the company’s future plans.

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Adam Poulisse, WFTV.com

Adam Poulisse joined WFTV in November 2019.