This week a broad cross-section of civic leaders joined together to announce the creation of the “Foodspeak Coalition” and to launch a national campaign to repeal existing “veggie libel” laws and to block any new food disparagement laws from being enacted at the state or federal level. For over 200 hundred years, our country’s legal systems have refused to recognize “product libel.” People can maliciously libel a human being and be required to pay damages; but not inanimate products such as Corvairs, Pinto fuel tanks, asbestos, the Dalkon Shield, fruits, vegetables and meat products. Now, it seems, corporations want to do what King George III, foreign dictators and bad domestic political bosses were unable to do — shut up the American people.
Ron Collins, Director of the Foodspeak Coalition, is working with over 26 organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Society of Professional Journalists, the Electronic Frontiers
Foundation, the National Resources Defense Council, People for the American Way, Consumer Federation of America and the Humane Society of the United States. More organizations will be joining this effort in the coming weeks.
Robust debate and criticism have turned surmises and suspicions and anathemas into discoveries or recognition of facts and truths. One has only to look back at our history and see how the dissenters of the past — criticizing tobacco, coal dust, useless over-the-counter drugs and a variety of health-damaging food additives and pesticides — have been proven right again and again. Amy Simpson is the State Director of the Ohio Public Interest Research Group. Imagine her surprise when she was recently sued by AgriGeneral (now Buckeye Eggs). Ohio PIRG had discovered that AgriGeneral was rewashing old eggs, repackaging them and selling them as new — with new expiration dates. She had more than two dozen signed and sworn affidavits from egg workers who not only witnessed the practice, but engaged in it. When Ohio PIRG released this important consumer information to the press, AgriGeneral reacted immediately. But rather than changing their anti-consumer practices, AgriGeneral sued her.
The Foodspeak Coalition has a substantial agenda. Over thirteen states already have food-disparagement laws on the books. And new laws are being considered in twelve additional states.
The realistic objective of the frivolous veggie libel statutes and lawsuits is not money; it is to send a chilling message to millions of people that they better keep their opinions to themselves. According to ACLU Executive Director Ira Glasser “veggie libel laws are almost exclusively used by the powerful to silence their critics.”
Veggie libel and other SLAPP (strategic lawsuits against public participation) suits are not about the kinds of behavior, actions and damage to human beings that give rise to product defect and medical malpractice lawsuits. They are suits about people’s right to speak their views — what the founding fathers fought for in the American Revolution. Fred Brown, President of the Society of Professional Journalists, said “Under these laws food critics, business writers who cover the food industry, agricultural and environmental newsletters, and even farm reporters could be subjected to lengthy and costly litigation just for doing their job in providing critical information to the public.”
The Foodspeak Coalition has already sent letters to the governors of every state that has or is considering food-disparagement laws urging the governors to restore full freedom of speech in their state by repealing or rejecting such laws.
Free speech is perhaps the most fundamental of all freedoms because it gives rise to other freedoms. U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy from Vermont said it is his view “that under the First Amendment, Americans possess the right to raise safety and health concerns about the foods we eat, such as the levels of mercury in our fish or the levels of pesticides in imported foods. State laws that permit lawsuits against those who question the safety of foods can have a chilling effect on public health discourse. That is not the American way — healthy debate on issues of public concern is how this country does business.”
Stifling free speech by well-funded harassment suits, that get thrown out of court, is serious and deserves a judicial and legislative and public response. If you want to find out more about the Foodspeak Coalition and its efforts visit their Web site at: http://www/cspinet.org/foodspeak. This site contains all existing and proposed food-disparagement laws, scholarly articles and other resources. You can also get information about the Foodspeak Coalition by writing to Ron Collins, Director of the Foodspeak Coalition, 1875 Connecticut Avenue, NW, Suite 300, Washington, DC 20009.