Music

Village People Can Move Ahead With Lawsuit Over Alleged Disney World Ban, Judge Says

A California judge is refusing — for now — to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the Village People against Disney that claims the Hollywood giant blackballed the legendary disco band from performing at Walt Disney World.

In a ruling issued Friday (June 21), San Diego County Superior Judge Katherine Bacal ruled that the Village People could move forward with the case, which accuses Disney of violating state laws and committing fraud by placing a “do not book edict” on the group.

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Disney had argued that it has a First Amendment right to hire — or to not hire — any band it chooses, citing a special California law designed to protect free speech. But in her ruling last week, the judge said the company had failed to prove that the statute applied to the case.

Importantly, the decision does not mean the Village People will win the lawsuit. Instead, Bacal merely rejected Disney’s request to dismiss the case at the earliest stage. The two sides will now proceed to discovery and an eventual trial, where the band will need to fully prove its claims.

A spokesperson for Disney did not immediately return a request for comment.

Karen Willis, the wife of Village People lead singer Victor Willis, filed the case in September, claiming that Disney had broken the law by “outright refusing to seriously consider the group” for bookings at the Orlando, Fla., theme park: “This unfair business practice by Disney denied Village People an opportunity to fairly compete for a slot to perform at Disney,” the complaint read.

Though the case targets Disney, the lawsuit appears to be rooted in a dispute between members of the original Village People lineup over who gets to perform under the iconic name.

According to court filings, Willis returned to the group in 2017 and formed a “re-vamped version” of the Village People — in the process, replacing an existing lineup that had been touring under the name for years. The case claims that the earlier iteration, featuring two other original members, “did not go away quietly,” and that they “took offense” when Willis’ Village People took over their existing slot at Disney World for a series of 2018 performances.

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After the spurned members allegedly contacted Disney to complain and “started a campaign” against the new band, the lawsuit claims that Disney “engaged in a series of outrageous and egregious conduct,” including failing to provide security and refusing to properly pay the act.

After Willis complained about being “treated very badly” during the new band’s 2018 run at the park, the lawsuit claims, Disney has since refused to rebook the group — imposing an effective ban on performing at the theme park. The lawsuit includes claims of breach of contract, unfair competition, fraud and conspiracy.

Ahead of last week’s ruling, Disney had argued that the case must be tossed out under California’s so-called anti-SLAPP provision — a law designed to quickly dismiss meritless lawsuits that threaten free speech. The studio argued that deciding which concerts to book was a form of constitutionally protected free speech rights and that it had the legal right to refuse to book the Village People.

Though Disney could very well still defeat the lawsuit, Bacal ruled on Friday that the company had failed to meet the specific legal requirements to use the anti-SLAPP law. In particular, the judge said Disney had failed to show that the dispute in the case was linked to the kind of “public conversation” that’s protected under the statute.

“There is no indication that defendants’ statements entered the public sphere,” Bacal wrote. “Defendants have not shown that the alleged statements contributed to or furthered the public conversation on an issue of public interest.”

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