Rice Vegetarian Club
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ACLU Says 'Veggie Libel' Laws
Are Patently Unconstitutional

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE Wednesday, January 22, 1998

NEW YORK -- With popular talk show host Oprah Winfrey facing a libel trial for "defaming beef," the American Civil Liberties Union today said that so-called "veggie libel" laws are unconstitutional.

The libel laws seeks to block speakers from discussing important public health matters concerning food. In the trial in Amarillo, Texas, cattle ranchers are seeking more than $12 million in damages they claim resulted from statements made by Oprah and her guests about "Mad Cow" disease.

In the last few years, at least 13 states, including Texas, have enacted litigation, also known as "food disparagement laws," that makes it easier for growers and ranchers to recover damages from anyone who alleges health risks associated with their product.

"These so-called veggie libel laws raise obvious First Amendment problems and threaten to chill speech on important issues of public concern," said Steven R. Shapiro, Legal Director of the national ACLU.

In particular, speakers may face multi-million dollar verdicts if a jury later determines that the challenged statements were not based on "reasonable and reliable scientific inquiry, facts or data." Given the ambiguous nature of scientific inquiry, this puts speakers in the precarious situation of having to prove facts still in dispute. Many people will simply refrain from speaking under threat of a lawsuit, Shapiro said.

Ultimately, a jury may end up deciding crucial differences of opinion about food safety months or even years after an issue arises, Shapiro added, a situation that is dangerous both to the First Amendment and to public health.

Citing these and other concerns, in April 1994 the ACLU of Georgia filed a challenge to that state's law on behalf of two environmental watchdog groups, Action for a Clean Environment and Parents for Pesticide Alternatives. The groups claimed that the Georgia law would have a chilling effect on their efforts to educate the public about environmental and food safety. But a judge dismissed the suit, saying that without an actual case to review, the issue "is not ripe for review."

The ACLU continues to monitor the veggie law's effect, in Texas as well in other states, and said that it may become involved in legal challenges as the issue ripens.

The states that have enacted laws already are: Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, and South Dakota and Texas.