Three cheers for Oprah Winfrey, who stomped a big mud hole in the rugged Texas cattlemen who sued her for speaking critically of their cows.
"Free speech not only lives, it rocks!" said Oprah after her jury victory over Texas' super-sensitive and politically correct cattlemen whose special "veggie libel law" failed to lift $12 million from Oprah's purse.Free speech indeed rocks.
If cow slander lawsuits can't win in Amarillo, they can't win anywhere. And that's good because it may put an end to a dangerous movement that threatens to clog the nation's courts with lawsuits that attempt to recover damages from citizens accused of making disparaging remarks about food.
If Oprah had lost under the special-interest law known as the Texas False Disparagement of Perishable Food Products Law, more states may have been suckered into passing similar laws, which would stir up blizzards of lawsuits against Americans who dare speak their opinions about everything from artichokes to veal.
Agricultural interests in 13 states have already spent millions of dollars on lobbyists and lawmakers to get veggie libel laws passed that give food producers special treatment in courts.
These speech-muzzling laws, such as the one used by Texas cattlemen against Oprah, shift the burden of proof to the person who is accused of speaking disparaging words against a class of food - even when no specific person or individual business is mentioned. Persons accused of committing this form of speech then must prove that their remarks "were based on reasonable and reliable scientific inquiry, facts or data."
Another nifty little item lobbied into veggie libel laws, or at least the one used to haul Oprah into an Amarillo court, is the whipsaw part that gives food producers extra protections for their speech. The Texas law protects food producers from legal actions against their own false statements, such as whether the food was grown or produced with chemicals, drugs, synthetic additives or whether it was organically grown.
Unfortunately, Oprah's victory over the Texas cattlemen did not resolve the obvious question concerning the constitutionality of veggie libel laws. U.S. District Judge Mary Lou Robinson barred the Texas cattlemen from using their special veggie libel law against Oprah because they failed to prove their allegations under Texas' food disparagement law.
That decision meant the Texas cattlemen had to try to recover damages from Oprah using the same laws that apply to all Americans. Those laws call for showing that false and malicious speech intentionally caused actual damages.
One juror put his finger on the point that should concern all Americans. "We felt that a lot of rights have eroded in this country," said juror Pat Gowdy. "Our freedom of speech may be the only one we have left to regain what we've lost."
There's still a chance to get all veggie libel laws declared unconstitutional if a group of Texas emu breeders continues with a veggie libel lawsuit against Honda Motor Co. over a television commercial that supposedly pokes fun at emus.
The Texas emu ranchers want Honda to give them a bunch of money for disparaging their emus.
When Americans can't poke fun at emus, then free speech will be as worthless as a green, leafy vegetable that I cannot name.