ACLU Joins Food Speak Coalition
To Fight "Veggie-Libel" Laws

 

Statement of Ira Glasser,
Executive Director, ACLU

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:
Contact: Phil Gutis (202) 675-2312
Tuesday, April 28, 1998

WASHINGTON -- The American Civil Liberties Union is pleased to join with the FoodSpeak coalition in opposition to so-called "veggie-libel" laws that are seriously restricting the public's First Amendment rights. These laws are intended to send a message that the price of criticism is to be impoverished by the cost of defending yourself. We believe such laws should be repealed, and that critics of the powerful should not be silenced.

In the last few years, at least 13 states have enacted legislation known as "food-disparagement" laws that make it easier for growers and ranchers to recover damages from anyone who alleges health risks associated with their product. Veggie-libel laws raise obvious First Amendment problems and threaten to chill speech on important issues of public concern.

Any defamation law -- whether it targets vegetables or Vietnam -- puts a price on public policy debate by exposing critics to costly litigation. In general, defamation laws are the descendants of criminal sedition laws, which made it a crime to criticize public officials. Today, such laws are used almost exclusively by the powerful to silence their critics.

Instead of responding to Oprah Winfrey, for example, which the cattle industry certainly had the resources to do, they sued her. The purpose of their suit was not to engage Winfrey in debate, but to intimidate her. And even though she won the lawsuit, it cost her a huge amount of money, and she is now being sued by a second group of ranchers and other beef producers.

Losing a libel lawsuit is not the price of criticism; defending a libel lawsuit is the price. And for people without the resources of Oprah, the price is prohibitive. Illustrative is the case of Amy Simpson of the Ohio Public Interest Research Group who was sued for criticizing an egg producer's industrial practices. Unlike Oprah, Simpson does not have the deep pockets to sustain a legal attack whereas the Buckeye Egg Farm has retained the formidable firm of Jones, Day to pursue its claim.

As long as these laws are on the books, critics like Amy Simpson can be muzzled by the threat of legal action. We join with the broad coalition gathered here today to insure that they can speak freely to insure open debate and, in this case, public health.


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