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Disney-DeSantis war of words heats up at annual meeting

Park guests stroll past the statue of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse in the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World Friday, July 14, 2023, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. Disney is asking a Florida judge to toss out a lawsuit filed by Gov. Ron DeSantis' appointees to Disney World's governing district.
John Raoux
/
AP
Park guests stroll past the statue of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse in the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World Friday, July 14, 2023, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. Disney is asking a Florida judge to toss out a lawsuit filed by Gov. Ron DeSantis' appointees to Disney World's governing district.

Disney CEO Bob Iger on Monday said any retaliatory actions by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature against the company that threaten jobs or expansion at its Florida resort is not only “anti-business ... but anti-Florida.”

Answering a question during an online shareholders' meeting, Iger said that the Republican governor and lawmakers appeared to be retaliating against the company for exercising its constitutional rights. He referred to the incident last year when Disney criticized Florida's law dubbed by critics “Don't Say Gay” while Bob Chapek was helming the company at the time. The measure bars instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade, as well as lessons deemed not age-appropriate.

In response, Florida lawmakers passed, and DeSantis signed, legislation revamping the government-like board that oversees Walt Disney World's 27,000-acre (11,000-hectare) property outside Orlando. Among the changes the legislation made was that the Florida governor got to pick the five supervisors of the governing board instead of it being controlled by Disney, as it had been in its previous 55 years.

During the shareholders’ meeting, Iger declared the company’s love for the state of Florida, noting it was the largest taxpayer in the state and employed around 75,000 workers. The company has plans to make $17 billion in investments at Disney World over the next 10 years that will create an additional 13,000 jobs, he said.

Iger acknowledged that there may have been some missteps in how Disney initially responded to the Florida legislation — the company took its time in speaking out against it publicly, and only after Disney employees exerted internal pressure. But he said the company, which is based in Burbank, California, had a right to free speech, just as individuals do.

Some shareholders during the question-and-answer period of the meeting criticized the company for promoting a “woke” agenda, while a Disney employee thanked Iger for supporting the company's workers. Iger responded that Disney's primary goal is to entertain and is not driven by an agenda.

By taking on Disney, DeSantis attempted to further his reputation as a culture warrior willing to battle perceived political enemies and wield the power of state government to accomplish political goals, a strategy that is expected to continue ahead of his potential White House run.

But the DeSantis-appointed supervisors said last week at the second meeting of the revamped board that their predecessors had pulled a fast one on them by passing restrictive covenants that strip the new board of most of its powers.

Disney has said all agreements were above board and took place in public.

DeSantis on Monday asked Florida's chief inspector general, with help from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, to launch an investigation into the actions of the previous board.

DeSantis said in a letter to chief inspector general that any legal or ethical violations should be referred to “the appropriate authorities.”

“Disney is again fighting to keep its special corporate benefits and dodge Florida law,” DeSantis spokesman Jeremy Redfern said in an email. “We are not going to let that happen. As Governor DeSantis recently said, ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet.’”

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