Groups Unite to Fight "Veggie-Libel" Laws
National Campaign & Web Site Launched
The FoodSpeak Coalition today launched a national campaign to fight existing and proposed "veggie-libel" laws.
The Coalition consists of twenty-six public interest, civil liberties, press, Internet, environmental, and medical groups. The groups include the American Civil Liberties Union, Public Citizen, Humane Society of the U.S., Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the Society of Professional Journalists. The Coalition is being organized by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), whose work concerns food safety and nutrition.
The FoodSpeak Coalition, according to its director, Ronald Collins, "will work to repeal food-disparagement laws in thirteen states and will oppose similar laws being proposed in some dozen more states. The Coalition also will support efforts to challenge such laws in courts and organize local grass-roots efforts in all of these states."
The Coalition is sending letters to the governors of every state that has or is considering food-disparagement laws. The letters urge the governors to restore full freedom of speech in their state by repealing or rejecting such laws.
The FoodSpeak Coalition today announced a Web site devoted to raising public awareness about the threats posed by such laws. The site contains all existing and proposed food-disparagement laws, scholarly articles, and other resources for activists and others. The Web site can be found at: http://www.cspinet.org/foodspeak.
United States Senator Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) expressed concern over the "chilling effect on free speech" such laws have "regarding public health issues." In a statement of support of the FoodSpeak campaign, the Senator stressed that "defamation laws should not intimidate citizens and the press who want to speak out about food safety." He added, "it is imperative that Americans be allowed to openly debate issues of public health."
"The real objective of the frivolous veggie-libel statutes and lawsuits is not money," said Ralph Nader. "It is to send a chilling message to millions of people that they better keep their opinions to themselves," he added. "Now, it seems, corporations want to do what King George III, foreign dictators, and bad domestic political bosses were unable to do -- shut up the American people."
ACLU Executive Director Ira Glasser noted that "veggie-libel" laws are almost exclusively used by the powerful to silence their critics. "Veggie-libel laws are intended to send a message that the price of criticism is to be impoverished," Glasser said. "We strongly believe that such laws should be repealed and that critics of the powerful must not be silenced."
Food-disparagement laws also interfere with the presss ability to cover consumer matters concerning food. "Under these laws," said Fred Brown (president of the Society of Professional Journalists), "food critics, business writers who cover the food industry, agricultural and environmental newsletters, and even farm reporters for newspapers could be subjected to lengthy -- and costly -- litigation just for doing their job in providing critical information to the public."
Barry Steinhardt, president of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, stressed that food disparagement laws "pose a direct threat to free speech rights on and off-line." Steinhardt noted that it is important for Internet free speech activists to join the FoodSpeak campaign, especially since the "Internet has become a primary forum for the debate over important public issues such as food and food safety."
Aided by noted First Amendment authorities, the FoodSpeak Coalition will assist in challenging food-disparagement laws in court cases. One such authority, William & Mary Law Professor Rodney A. Smolla, characterized the laws as "uncommonly silly and undoubtedly unconstitutional."
"Food-disparagement laws invite abuses of our legal system; they permit agribusiness to slap citizens with harassing lawsuits whenever citizens exercise their First Amendment rights to speak out about food safety," said FoodSpeak director Ronald Collins. Four food-disparagement lawsuits, which include the Oprah Winfrey suits, are currently pending in courts in Texas and Ohio. (A fifth case involving "lawn libel" was thrown out of court recently.)
"I was shocked to find out about the lawsuit against me," said Amy Simpson of the Ohio Public Interest Research Group. Both Simpson and the Ohio PIRG are being sued under a veggie-libel law for criticizing an egg producer. "Like most Americans," she added, "I believed that as long as what I said was true, I had the right to say it. I believed, and I still do, that not only is it my civic right to speak out, but it is also my duty to do so. But being sued is a nightmare, especially when confronted with the reality of a prolonged and costly lawsuit."