Texas turf farmer sues agriculture agent after business wilts

Monday, March 16, 1998

A Texas turf farmer is suing a state agriculture expert demanding that he keep off the grass.

Pat Anderton, owner of A-1 Turf Farm in Plano, is suing James McAfee over his comments about Texturf 10 under the state's veggie-libel law. The law makes it illegal to knowingly make false statements about a food product.

A state judge held a hearing in a Dallas courtroom recently concerning the case. According to The Dallas Morning News, Anderton contends state extension agent McAfee violated the law when he said Texturf 10 should not be planted in North Texas because it doesn't hold up well in high humidity.

Anderton claims McAfee's comments, which appeared in a 1996 news release and were later published in the House & Garden section of The Dallas Morning News, caused a downward spiral in sales of her crop. Anderton did not sue the paper.

The most famous case involving veggie libel in the state ended last month without a ruling on the controversial 3-year-old law. A Texas judge said cattlemen failed to make their case against Oprah Winfrey under the veggie-libel law. A jury later ruled for Winfrey, finding her remarks during a segment on beef and mad cow disease didn't slander cattle intentionally. That ruling was based on standard libel law.

The idea of grass as a food product may puzzle some, but Anderton's attorney, Stephen J. Raynor, insists veggie-libel law covers grass. He told the paper: “We've run into people who go to health food stores and order grass as a juice. We're not talking about nuts. These are reasonable people. They drink it.”

However, the hearing focused more on the question of whether the lawsuit should be dismissed. Assistant Attorney General David Palmer argued that the extension agent, as a state employee, is entitled to immunity from liability when commenting about farm products.

Raynor said that when the judge issues a decision, most of the “opinion will relate not to the veggie-libel law itself, but whether the state can do anything it wants under the immunity doctrine. The state did not push the First Amendment angle much at the hearing.”

First Amendment Ombudsman Paul McMasters, who has written extensively about veggie-libel laws, says free speech is very much at issue.

The Freedom Forum's McMasters said: “Now we're beginning to see just how dangerous to speech these laws are. Already under the Texas law, we've seen claims of defamation against so-called perishable products ranging from beef on the hoof to emus on the feet to grass in the ground. There simply is no way to calculate the potential impact on free speech that these laws make possible.

“If you want a good example of just how arbitrary and capricious they can
be, this case is it: The best friend that farmers and ranchers can have is
the state extension agent, yet here is one being forced to defend himself
for speaking the truth as he knows it,” he said.

“It is a real irony: A law supposedly protecting farmers and ranchers is
being used to silence someone who speaks out daily on their behalf.”