It would be difficult to conceive of any topic of discussion that could be of greater concern and interest to all Americans than the safety of the food that they eat.

-- Judge Mary Lou Robinson                         
Texas Beef Group v. Oprah Winfrey (1998)


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Note: The Food Speak coalition is no longer active. Please visit CSPI's litigation page for recent updates.



 
Food-Libel Bill Introduced in Vermont

April 14, 2000 

 
Vermont Representatives Ruth H. Towne (R.), Stephanie A. Bourdeau (R), and Henry L. Gray (R.), among others, have introduced a food-libel bill (H 190) into the Vermont House of Representatives. The bill is currently before the House Agriculture Committee and is not expected to pass before the legislative session ends in a month or so.

While the proposed bill has an “intentionally or with reckless disregard” requirement, it does not satisfy the First Amendment “of and concerning” requirement. Moreover, H-190 is also problematic in how it defines “false information,” namely, as “information that is not based on verifiable fact or on reliable scientific data or evidence.” Finally, the proposed measure allows for attorney fees and costs for a successful plaintiff but not a successful defendant.

In 1998, Senator Patrick Leahy (D.-Vt.) issued a statement opposing food-libel laws.

 

 
Oprah & Lyman Win Again: Federal Appellate Court Rejects Cattlemen’s Food-Libel Claim

February 11, 2000 

 
The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit finally handed down its ruling (2-9-00) in Texas Beef Group, et al v. Oprah Winfrey. In an unsigned opinion the three-judge court unanimously rejected the claims of Texas cattlemen that their beef had been disparaged under the Texas food libel statute. In doing so the court ruled that the plaintiffs had failed to show that Oprah Winfrey, Howard Lyman, and King World Productions had “knowingly” disseminated false information tending to show that American beef is not fit for public consumption.

Said the court: “Lyman’s opinions, though strongly stated, were based on truthful, established fact, are not actionable under the First Amendment.”

Notably, the court added: “Stripped to its essentials, the cattlemen’s complaint is that [Oprah’s] ‘Dangerous Food’ show did not present the Mad Cow issue in the light most favorable to United States beef. This argument cannot prevail.”

The ruling affirms people’s right to speak their opinions and reaffirms that “editing is what editors are for, and not for judges or the legal system,” said Charles L. Babcock, Oprah’s attorney.

“This is the latest in an unbroken string of victories against industry plaintiffs who have invoked food-libel laws to silence food critics,” said Ronald Collins of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which filed an amicus brief in support of Ms. Winfrey. The brief presented to the Fifth Circuit was co-authored with the Society of Professional Journalists, the Association of American Publishers, and the Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression.

“The Oprah victory,” said Collins, “was based on very narrow statutory grounds. And while it was an important win, it was a costly one, which would have bankrupted most other defendants. That is why these laws need to be repealed or struck down — because they punish the innocent for exercising their First Amendment rights.”

The Future: At this time it is unknown whether the plaintiff-cattlemen will appeal the Fifth Circuit’s ruling. Meanwhile, “Oprah2” (the same kind of food-libel case though originally brought in state court) is pending before Federal District Judge Mary Lou Robinson for a jurisdictional determination.

 

 
Colorado Food-Libel Law Imposes Criminal Sanctions

September 20, 1999 

 
Colorado is the only state in the nation — and most likely the only government in the world — that makes it a crime to disparage food. Incredibly, it is an offense against the state to wound the reputation of, say, a lemon. Read more about the Colorado law in a new op-ed.

 

 
Congress Must Address Food-Disparagement Laws

June 10, 1999 

 
A new op-ed argues for national legislation to limit the reach of state food-libel laws. The article calls for a national law to prohibit the application of state food-disparagement laws to interstate communication. The article, which originally appeared in the Baltimore Sun, can be found here.

Related news item: The New York Times ran a front-page story on June 1, 1999 entitled “Farmers’ Right to Sue Grows, Raising Debate on Food Safety.” The article, by Melody Petersen, discussed how food-libel laws affect book publishers and the electronic media.
[The Baltimore Sun, June 10, 1999]

 

 
Food-Libel Fails in Arkansas

March 22, 1999 

 
In February-March of 1999, a food-disparagement bill was introduced in the Arkansas Legislature. The measure (HB 1938) was submitted to the House by state Rep. Jim Milum. It passed by a wide margin. The bill was then referred to the Senate Agricultural Committee, presided over by state Senator James Scott.

When news of the proposed law spread, it met with strong opposition. Both the Arkansas Democrat Gazette (3-10-99) and the Morning News (3-10-99) editorialized against HB 1938. The Arkansas Press Association (led by C. Dennis Schick) and the Arkansas ACLU (led by Rita Sklar) also strongly opposed the bill, as did a variety of other local groups.

Professors John Di Pippa and Rick Peltz (U. Ark. Law School, Little Rock) prepared testimony contesting the measure’s constitutionality. Professor Rodney Smolla (U. Richmond Law School) sent a five-page memo to the chair of the Senate Committee. Christopher Finan, president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Freedom of Expression, also sent a letter of opposition and helped organize local book sellers to oppose the bill.

On March 16, 1999 (James Madison’s birthday) HB 1938 came up for a vote before the Senate Agricultural Committee. The measure failed when no one made a motion to take action on it. Senator Mike Everett said: “My suggestion is euthanasia.” Pat Ford, a local blueberry farmer, testified against the bill: “I want researchers on pesticides to be able to ask hard questions and tell me what the effects of those chemicals are without having to worry about getting sued.” (Arkansas Democrat Gazette, 3-17-99).

Though unlikely, the measure could be amended and reintroduced sometime before the Arkansas legislative session ends in April, 1999.
For an online report, see the Freedom Forum article and editorial on the proposed Arkansas food-libel bill.

 

 
Oprah Suits Linger On

March 1, 1999 

 
In a just-published op-ed, Ronald Collins and Jonathan Bloom discuss the ramifications of the protracted litigation in the Oprah Winfrey / Howard Lyman food-disparagement lawsuits.