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"Oprah and the Beef"
Editorial from the Washington Post - May 01, 1998 (pg. A14)

"When Texas cattlemen first sought to punish Oprah Winfrey for airing a show about mad cow disease in 1996, the Texas attorney general declined to file suit on their behalf because, he was quoted as saying, it would only draw further attention to the show's "outrageous claims" about the meat supply. Though this piece of eminent good sense didn't convince the cattlemen, several of whom went ahead and sued Ms.Winfrey themselves, you might have thought that their decisive trouncing in federal court last month would pound in the message. No such luck.

Not only have the cattlemen appealed in federal court; last week they assembled a slightly different group of 130 plaintiffs and filed virtually the same suit again in state court, charging, as before, that the broadcast drove down beef prices and lost the industry millions of dollars. If there are still three or four people in the nation who haven't heard about Humane Society activist Howard Lyman's speculations about how mad cow disease might spread through U.S. beef stocks, and Ms.Winfrey's sympathetic exclamation that she had eaten her last hamburger, their state of ignorance is unlikely to outlast yet another round of argument over Ms.Winfrey's right to broadcast discussions of food safety.

Like the first case, this one invokes Texas's ill-advised agricultural defamation law, perhaps on the assumption that a state court in a heavily beef-industry town will treat a state law more tenderly than did federal judge Mary Lou Robinson, who promptly declared it irrelevant to the case.

But there's far more wrong with the "veggie defamation" laws than their apparent weakness when applied to a case like the Winfrey one -- in which doubt was cast on even the threshold issue of whether beef on the hoof counts as a protected "perishable food product." Passed in 13 states under pressure from agricultural producers weary of sometimes alarmist discussion of food-borne disease, the laws drastically lower free-speech protections; some would even punish claims that a speaker believes to be true. Retrying the Winfrey case under this wrongheaded law reopens the possibility that it will be overturned as unconstitutional. That would be a fitting backfire to what looks more like simple bullying."

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