Arkansas Senate committee has no appetite for food-libel bill

Wednesday, March 17, 1999

The food-libel bill that overwhelmingly passed the Arkansas House last week has failed to clear the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Economic Development — at least for now.

After holding a hearing, the committee yesterday declined take any action on the bill, which was designed to allow producers of food products to sue individuals and groups who make disparaging comments about agricultural products.

Opponents of the bill called the committee's failure even to take a vote on the measure a First Amendment victory.

“I think that the bill is dead for this session,” Milton Scott, lobbyist for the Arkansas Press Association, said. “We view this as a victory, at least at this point, although any bill can be resurrected by suspending the rules.”

Scott, who testified against the bill at yesterday's hearing, said he didn't think the bill had “another life.”

Another opponent of the legislation who testified against it was Rita Sklar, executive director of the Arkansas Civil Liberties Union. She called the bill “seriously ill.”

“The committee had serious First Amendment concerns with the bill, and it was clear that it would not get out of the committee,” Sklar said.

Ronald Collins, director of the FoodSpeak Coalition, a group that opposes food-libel laws, said the bill did indeed have “serious First Amendment flaws.”

Introduced March 2, the measure would allow lawsuits from those who “suffer damages as a result of another person's disparagement” of a “perishable food product.”

The bill defines “disparagement” as “the willful or negligent dissemination to the public in any manner of false information that a perishable agricultural food product is not safe for human consumption.”

Collins and others argue that the bill, like all food-libel legislation, does not fit with the constitutional standards for libel law laid out by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 1964 decision New York Times Co. v. Sullivan.

Collins said the measure, first and foremost, failed to satisfy the “of and concerning requirement” of the Times v. Sullivan case. The Supreme Court wrote that allegedly defamatory comments must be published “of and concerning the plaintiff.”

“You cannot disparage an agricultural product,” Collins said. “You can only disparage company X's or company Y's food product.”

Collins also said he was troubled by the bill's definition of false information, i.e., “information which is not based on reliable, scientific facts and reliable scientific data which the disseminator knows or should have known to be false.”

He said this definition, especially when considered in conjunction with the bill's allowance of punitive damages under a negligence standard, also failed the legal standards set forth by the court in Times v. Sullivan.

“What is particularly pernicious about this bill is not only its constitutional failings, but also the fact that the key terms of the bill are not defined with more specificity,” he said.

“We are pleased to get a First Amendment victory on James Madison's birthday,” Collins said yesterday.

A call placed to state Sen. James Scott, the Senate sponsor of the bill, was not returned.