WILMINGTON, Delaware (Reuters)—When attorneys for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis appear in court to defend against Walt Disney Co's lawsuit that accuses the Republican official of weaponizing state government, they will see a familiar face, if not always a welcome one.
U.S. District Judge Mark Walker in Tallahassee has struck down several laws that defined DeSantis' conservative political agenda, including statutes that sought to limit the speech of college professors, curtailed protests and restricted voting access.
Walker was nominated to the federal court by former President Barack Obama, a Democrat.
Disney sued DeSantis on Wednesday to block a state law that created an oversight board that Disney said will interfere with billions of dollars of planned development.
The feud between the global entertainment giant and a likely candidate for the 2024 presidential election started last year, when Disney criticized a law signed by DeSantis that banned classroom instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation for younger children.
Disney alleges a law that imposed an oversight board was punishment for voicing opposition to DeSantis' classroom instruction law known as the Parental Rights in Education Act.
The company called the state's actions "particularly offensive here due to the clear retaliatory and punitive intent."
The gender-education statute, derided by critics as the "Don't Say Gay" law, survived challenges in federal court before a different judge.
Free speech has been central to several rulings by Walker against DeSantis, although the judge has also at times sided with the governor.
Walker blocked the Individual Freedom Act or Stop Woke Act, which limited the speech of college professors, calling it "positively dystopian" in an opinion that began with a quote from George Orwell's anti-totalitarian novel "1984."
In 2021, Walker blocked the Combating Public Disorder Act, which DeSantis signed into law after the 2020 protests over the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of police.
Walker ruled the law's expansion of the definition of "riot" infringed on protesters' right to free speech.
The judge last year enjoined a law signed by DeSantis that banned ballot drop boxes and prevented groups from offering food and water to voters waiting in long lines, causes championed by Democrats as a way to support voter turnout.
The judge also sided with plaintiffs in a second lawsuit challenging a different aspect of the Stop Woke Act, which defined as "unlawful employment practices" workplace training around issues of race and sex.
Walker said Florida had become a place where the First Amendment allowed, rather than prevented, the state to limit speech. Or as he put it, "in the popular television series Stranger Things, the 'upside down' describes a parallel dimension containing a distorted version of our world. Recently, Florida has seemed like a First Amendment upside down."
The judge has also ruled with DeSantis and declined to block the execution of a death row inmate and dismissed some claims against the governor over the Individual Freedom Act.
(Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, DelawareAdditional reporting by Lisa Richwine in Los AngelesEditing by Amy Stevens and Matthew Lewis)