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Final days of legislative session see Disney lawsuit, drag queen protest, big trip abroad for governor

'In America, the government cannot punish you for speaking your mind,' Disney's attorneys wrote in legal filing
Posted at 7:25 PM, Apr 28, 2023
and last updated 2023-04-28 19:25:54-04

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Disney's lawsuit, a drag queen rally and Gov. Ron DeSantis' big trip abroad all stole headlines in Tallahassee this week as the year's legislative session prepares to enter its final few days.

HEALTH GROUPS SUBPOENAED

Florida lawmakers subpoenaed two state medical groups this week, wanting to know why they support gender dysphoria treatments for minors. The Florida Psychiatric Society and the Florida chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics are to be targeted by the demand for information.

House Health Committee Chair Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, is behind the effort after getting tapped by House Speaker Paul Renner in a letter seeking an investigation on the issue.

"We want to understand if this was science-driven or politically driven," Fine said. "And, we suspect it was politically driven."

Fine is a controversial figure as he's also backing a bill this year to codify a ban on gender dysphoria treatments for kids under 18. The lawmaker considers hormone therapies, puberty blockers and surgeries "child abuse." Fine said he wants to know if the two medical organizations under scrutiny have science on their side or if they've been "compromised by a radical gender ideology."

"If you really have robust backing, you wouldn't be hiding when people are asking," Fine said. "We're not the first people to ask and they're hiding and running and begging for these records to not be put out."

Nationally, there are at least 30 groups that have made public statements in support of the treatments. They include well-known names like the American Medical Association and Endocrine Society. The organizations consider the therapies beneficial, some say life-saving, and that they rarely include surgery.

"We're asking whether or not they've been compromised by a radical gender ideology?" said House Minority Leader Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa. "To me, that sounds like a conspiracy theory."

Driskell condemned the subpoenas during a press call Monday morning. She called them little more than a political witch hunt.

"We know that this is part of the nationwide GOP attack on the LGBTQ community," she said. "They're putting politics over the medical advice of experts across the country."

As for the two associations targeted, the Florida Psychiatric Society didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. FCAAP offered a brief statement.

"We have no comment at this time," Alicia E. Adams, the FCAAP's executive director, said. "Our Board will discuss how to respond if a subpoena is received."

After getting a party-line backing from the Health Committee Monday, Fine returned to the House Speaker for final approval on his subpoenas later in the day. The lawmaker estimated they'd be ready in 24 hours and said they'll have a response deadline of May 4, a day before this year's legislative session ends.

Democrats briefly tried to amend the subpoenas, attaching at least 10 groups opposed to gender dysphoria treatments. Members said it was important to hear from all voices involved. Republicans rejected the idea, believing many of the groups would speak to the committee without the need for a formal demand— others noted numerous national groups were outside the jurisdiction of the state.

DRAG QUEEN PROTEST

About 200 drag queens and LGBTQ+ advocates flooded Tallahassee streets Tuesday afternoon. The group marched to the historic Capitol — protesting a slate of legislation they considered hateful, transphobic and censorship. Organizers believed it to be the largest gathering of its kind in state history.

Their hair was as high as their frustration, many trading in heels for boots and sneakers marching, they said, to protect their livelihood and lives.

"We won't be erased," Regina Livingston of Gainesville said. "We understand that laws have been passed, but we're going to let them know we're not going to take it laying down."

The legislation provoking the protest includes bills limiting public bathrooms to biological sex, bans on gender dysphoria treatments for minors and a policy already headed to the governor which threatens fines and jail time to those admitting kids to "adult live performances." The phrase is defined as a presentation that "depicts or simulates nudity, sexual conduct, or specific sexual activities…"

Many participants think the measure is an attempt to chill drag shows.

"Things are not going the way the world needs them to go," Bruce, a Floridian who marched in drag and declined to give a last name, said. "We're all here to have a good time and show love not hate."

The GOP majority is pushing the measures this year. Many Republicans have said their goal is not to censor or harm — but to protect the well-being of children and shield them from lewd material.

Fine is carrying the House version of the adult performances bill.

"I was motivated by what happened in my own community," Fine said recently. "The city sponsored an event and put adult entertainers in the middle of the street. Parents walking by had adult sex toys waived in the faces of their kids. That's not OK."

Other Republicans took to Twitter as protesters crowded into the Capitol building.

"Radical trans-agitators are demanding that we allow children to attend drag shows," state Rep. Spencer Roach, R-North Fort Myers, said online. "It's not going to happen in Florida, no matter how loud you scream."

All three of the bills are likely to get the governor's signature this session if they arrive at his desk. Protesters were not dismayed, however. Their focus already turning to the ballot box in 2024.

"We're taking people to the polls," Darcel Stevens of Orlando said. "That's the only way things will change. ... We want to see you in that hallowed hall up there. Not the people who are voting against us."

Outside of the efforts to motivate voters — LGBTQ+ advocates also said it was likely Florida courts would see legal challenges if the governor signs these bills, either for denying access to medical care or as an affront to freedom of speech.

DISNEY TARGETS DESANTIS IN LAWSUIT 

Disney is taking DeSantis to federal court. The entertainment company filed a lawsuit Wednesday in Florida's Northern District.

The 77-page complaint alleges the governor and state officials were part of a "targeted campaign of government retaliation…" after the company spoke out against a controversial law, approved last year.

Disney aims to tack back control of the land around its Orlando parks — a special district formally known as Reedy Creek.

"In America, the government cannot punish you for speaking your mind," the company's attorneys wrote in the legal filing.

Democrats in the Legislature said they were surprised the lawsuit didn't come sooner.

"I think Disney tried to resolve this and they tried to de-escalate," state Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, said. "But, at every turn, we saw Gov. DeSantis escalate this whole rivalry with one of the largest employers in the state of Florida."

Republicans had a different take. State Rep. Fred Hawkins, R-Orlando, who carried a bill, now law, stripping Disney of the district, was confident the state would win in the end.

"The governor is not going to give up," Hawkins said. "From what I know and understand— I'm not speaking for him, but Disney will lose this fight. The special district was created by the Legislature. The Legislature can take it away and doesn't need to have a reason."

The lawsuit arrives as lawmakers inch closer to sending the governor a new Disney bill to reinforce that the state board has authority over the district. Hawkins thought it would stand no matter how the company's legal challenge turns out.

The governor's press team has also weighed in as he continued a trip overseas.

"We are unaware of any legal right that a company has to operate its own government or maintain special privileges not held by other businesses in the state," the governor's communications director, Taryn Fenske, said. "This lawsuit is yet another unfortunate example of their hope to undermine the will of the Florida voters and operate outside the bounds of the law."

GOVERNOR'S MISSION ABROAD

As the governor makes headlines overseas, criticism over his ongoing international trip grows back in Florida. Democrats, and even some Republicans, are taking shots.

Undeterred, the highlights of his trip kept flooding email inboxes. In Japan, Gov. Ron DeSantis met with officials to talk about aerospace partnerships and more direct flights. In South Korea he announced the possible development of a clean hydrogen facility in Florida.

DeSantis' latest stop was in Israel. There he met with the president and delivered a keynote address.

"We must reject those who reject Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state," DeSantis said early Thursday morning. "That is antisemitism."

The governor also signed a Florida bill fighting antisemitism. Among its provisions — making it illegal to project images on buildings without an owner's consent.

"You know— no governor has done more to fight antisemitism than Gov. DeSantis has," Fine, the bill's sponsor, said. "We have the strongest anti-antisemitism bill in the country."

While some Florida Republicans continue to give the trip abroad rave reviews, others aren't as supportive. Trump supporter and Lake County GOP Chair Anthony Sabatini said DeSantis' absence is being felt in Tallahassee as the lawmaking session nears a close.

"Well, it's just certainly not an appropriate time to be taking escapades around the world," Sabatini, a former state representative, said. "You have great conservative bills dying left and right, and as a member of the state party… I'm just left scratching my head why the governor would be in Japan and Israel."

Many see the trip as more than a trade mission — rather an attempt to strengthen a potential White House run. That's something DeSantis has repeatedly dismissed while on the road.

"If there's any announcements, those will come at the appropriate time," DeSantis told journalists Thursday.

Political experts warn that time could be running out. Each day lost is one less the governor could secure publicity, money and more.

"Most importantly, people really want him to start punching back at Trump," Dr. Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida politics professor emerita, said. "The question is, is that a good strategy, or is it not?"

Former President Donald Trump has locked up many of Florida's GOP congressional endorsements. He has the former head of the state party, Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, on board. Trump also continues to hold a lead over DeSantis in national polling.

"He's (DeSantis) absolutely imploding, and we are all here to watch it," Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Hollywood, said. "I think the biggest fear here for members on the other side of the aisle is that he comes back here after a failed attempt for the presidency — and comes back scorched earth and just a really big brat."

We keep hearing that if a presidential run is coming — it's coming soon. Pundits and others suggest it'll be in May, but a growing number think DeSantis may now hold back if support for the former president continues to grow.