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Disney flexes its legal muscle in latest feud with DeSantis

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The Walt Disney Company has filed a First Amendment lawsuit against Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, claiming the company is the victim of what it calls a targeted campaign of government retaliation. It's the latest punch thrown in what has become a very public battle between the state of Florida and one of the most powerful companies in the world, let alone the state. Brooks Barnes of The New York Times has been following this story, and he joins us to talk more about Disney's influence and where this feud is heading. Brooks, thanks for being with us.

BROOKS BARNES: Of course. Thank you.

BLOCK: Why don't you catch us up first with how this all started.

BARNES: It started about a year ago, when Florida was finalizing the education law that opponents called Don't Say Gay. It prohibits classroom instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity for young students. Something like 200 companies came out against that law, but Disney was notably silent. And so advocacy groups were really pounding on Disney to speak up. Employees started to revolt. So Disney reversed, rather aggressively denounced the education bill and halted political donations. DeSantis and his allies seized on this as a political opportunity, right? He started to fundraise by promising to show, quote, "woke Disney" who's boss and sort of setting off a string of actions that reverberates all the way to this week, when Disney filed this lawsuit.

BLOCK: And in response, what happened was that the Florida legislature, at the urging of Governor DeSantis, revoked what had been, for a long time, the Disney company's self-governing status, which is a big deal in Florida.

BARNES: It's a big deal for Disney for sure because they've had this ability for 56 years - ever since the company first bought land. First, they said, we're going to take away this right. No company should have this kind of power. Then they realized there were all sorts of problems with taking it away, and so they amended it - the legislature. Now the privileges still stood, but the governor could control the board. Previously, Disney controlled the board.

BLOCK: What are the implications of that? What impact could that have?

BARNES: It's easiest to think about this tax district as its own county. It basically has allowed Disney to control government services - waste management, development, building permitting. The threat is that the governor's appointees could basically throw a wrench in all of those things.

BLOCK: You cover the entertainment industry for The New York Times. You're very familiar with Disney and how it operates.

BARNES: Sure.

BLOCK: Do you think they have the resources to outmaneuver Governor DeSantis? Did DeSantis overestimate his own power here?

BARNES: Look, Mickey is a hard-willed mouse, right?

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: He seems so friendly.

BARNES: He seems so friendly. I know they have a 500-person media relations department worldwide - so if that tells you anything about the heft. Their theme park unit alone generated 8 billion in profit last year, 26 billion in revenue. They have enormous resources. They also have, what legal experts have told me, a pretty solid ground to sue, at least on the First Amendment side of things because the rhetoric from DeSantis and his allies in the legislature has been very clear - we're doing this as payback. They've sort of framed it, especially recently, as no company should be able to have these rights - these self-governing rights.

BLOCK: That Disney just had too much power.

BARNES: Right. Pretty much from the beginning, the '60s, Disney has kind of gotten whatever it wants in Florida. It has sloshed political donations around. It has a really big lobbying arm there. And most importantly, it has enormous, enormous economic muscle in the state.

BLOCK: And part of what makes this whole feud so interesting is that, for so long, the state of Florida and Disney have had this intensely symbiotic relationship, right?

BARNES: Intense is a good word. Yes. They employ 75,000 people, which is the nation's largest single-site employer. It generates - oh, I don't know - more than a billion dollars in tax income a year, and Disney World attracts 50 million visitors. And so that really powers the entire tourism economy of central Florida.

BLOCK: That's Brooks Barnes with The New York Times. Thanks very much.

BARNES: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.