Texas lawmaker seeks repeal of food-libel laws

Monday, December 21, 1998

A Texas lawmaker's plan to introduce legislation to repeal the state's food-disparagement statute is drawing applause from a free-speech advocate who says such laws cultivate nothing but frivolous, expensive lawsuits and an anti-First Amendment environment.

“It's welcome news given the fact that the Texas food-disparagement statute alone has given rise to some of the most bizarre lawsuits in the nation,” said Ronald Collins of the Center for Science in the Public Interest and a spokesman for the FoodSpeak coalition.

A lawsuit filed by Texas cattlemen against talk show host Oprah Winfrey easily stood out as the most visible food-libel case of the past year. But other lawsuits challenged individuals' comments about sod, eggs and emus.

But Rex Runyon, director of the American Feed Industry Association, says there are misconceptions about the laws. Runyon says such laws are all about accountability and not about curtailing freedom of speech or freedom of the press.

“Individuals and organizations should be held responsible for what they say,” Runyon said. “Everyone has the right to express an opinion, but you shouldn't have the right to express reckless falsehoods.”

A wave of food-libel laws swept the nation after a federal district court in 1990 dismissed a libel lawsuit brought by a group of Washington apple growers against CBS. The apple farmers contended comments made on “60 Minutes” about the harmful effects of the pesticide Alar unfairly disparaged their industry.

Today, food-libel laws are on the books in 13 states — Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Texas.

Three lawmakers in Missouri hope to add their state to the list. Reps. Sam Leake, D-Center; Gary Wiggins, D-New Cambria; and Daniel Hegeman, R- Cosby, plan to reintroduce a food-disparagement bill they sponsored this year in the next legislative session.

In the meantime, no court has yet ruled on the constitutionality of a food-disparagement law.

“The statute has given rise to a kind of litigation that mocks free-speech values,” Collins said. “We're going to be doing everything we can, working with a variety of consumer groups, civil liberty groups and media groups to help repeal this law.”

Collins says the statutes prove costly to those who only wish to speak freely.

“We had lawsuits that have cost parties who are speaking their minds in the spirit of the First Amendment,” he said. “That's one of the problems with the statutes. When you win a case, you actually lose because of attorney fees.”

In Texas, Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio, last week introduced a bill to repeal that state's food-libel law. The bill is to be considered in the next legislative session, scheduled to begin Jan. 12.

Runyon says his group defends the statutes because they are narrowly drawn and address only statements that are both false and intentionally made. He says the laws also require plaintiffs to show actual damages.

“It's very specific and that's why as far as curbing freedom of speech and the press, I think people are overreacting,” he said.