Thursday, April 23, 2009

your 1st Amendment rights stop at food

When I learned of "food disparagement laws" earlier today, I entered a state of shock.

Hours later, still shocked, I fiddled around and stumbled upon allegedly one of the top 25 censored stories from 1997:

The birth of disparagement laws occurred in 1989 when the legendary CBS news magazine show 60 Minutes publicized a Natural Resources Defense Council report charging that the chemical Alar, which enhances the appearance of apples, caused cancer. Apples, apple juice, and applesauce were immediately removed from grocery store shelves, resulting in a loss of $130 million to Washington apple growers. In response, the Washington growers sued the television show for $250 million—insisting that their product had been falsely disparaged. Supporters of the agricultural disparagement laws aim to make products easier to market as well as to avoid significant financial losses.

These laws are a direct threat to the free speech rights granted under the First Amendment. Under such food disparage-ment laws, mass media and individual citizens would lose their right to inform—and to be informed. If you’re sued for disparagement and you lose, the punishment in Idaho is typical: you have to pay the plaintiff for recovery of all and any financial loss. In Colorado, you could also go to prison for a year. Perversely, such laws cannot be challenged until someone is charged with violating it. “It’s terrifying,” says David Bederman, an Emory University law professor who tried unsuccessfully to challenge Georgia’s disparagement law. The judge ruled that he couldn’t dispute the law until he had a real dispute. But a real dispute could have far-reaching implications.

Currently, there are twelve states that have passed these laws and thirteen that have legislation pending. Critics charge that scientists might not study the effects of pesticides on foods—and that journalists and activists might not report on or discuss such concerns—thus leaving consumers in the dark.

Although generally silent on the issue, the media hit the fan in 1996 when Oprah talked about Mad Cow Disease on her show:
A coalition of cattle ranchers sued Winfrey and Lyman for $10.3 million, claiming that their comments caused the beef market to lose value. The suit was brought under the Texas False Disparagement of Food Products Act, a law that allows agricultural interests to sue an individual if something they say causes perishable food to decay “beyond marketability” (as would happen when people refuse to buy the product).
Of course, Oprah won the case--but was stuck in costly litigation for years. The message was pretty much "Shut your mouth or else."

Case in point:

Consider the experience of University of California at Santa Barbara environmental studies instructor J. Robert Hatherill. Passages in a book of his discussing the dangers of some dairy and meat products were removed by his publisher. Why? It was not out of a fear of losing a lawsuit, but of being sued in the first place.

“We could win the lawsuit,” Hatherill was told by his publisher, “but it would cost us millions and it’s just not worth it.”

Those with the evidence to back up their claims, but without the resources to defend them in court, run the risk of self censorship.
Oy vey. I really don't want to keep this article running so long, but this issue is just crazy:

Of course the agricultural industry insists that food disparagement laws are needed to protect their investments. But another reason for having such laws probably parallels the industry’s opposition to labeling. For example, food companies do not want to be forced to tell consumers that the package of skinless, boneless chicken breasts they are about to purchase had a dose of radiation sent through it (a process called irradiation).

The industry says that people have a right to NOT know how their food is produced, or what is in or on it, and that labeling irradiated food will lead to “irrational” behavior on the part of the consumer (i.e. people will not purchase the food). The industry even admits that consumers probably will not knowingly buy irradiated food.

Michael Colby, executive director of Food and Water, told the Springfield Advocate that letters to congress from a dozen food industry associations say that labeling makes food unmarketable.

“So these industries argue that these technologies are so safe, the greatest thing since sliced bread, but they hide the fact of their use. They know they have a technology that the American public overwhelmingly distrusts” Colby said.

So, by opposing labeling, corporations are trying to keep consumers from making purchasing decisions based on production practices.

Veggie libel laws have a similar effect. Out of a fear of costly litigation, individuals or organizations may refrain from informing consumers about unhealthy food or the dangerous consequences of some agricultural practices. READ THE FULL ARTICLE


Justin said...

What is going on in this world?!!?! We need to stop giving corporations so many rights...this is capitalism Vanessa.....this is it...

Vanessa said...

Justin, it is extremely reductivist and naive to brush this off as a side effect of "evil capitalism." If you think that issues of corruption in government and the promotion of self-interest are limited to capitalism, you should go read a few books and get back to The Colonic.

Kel said...

I didn't know anything about this law until reading your post a week or so ago and reviewing the links you provided. Then this morning I spotted an article on about the misnomer of "swine" flu and how companies are already complaining of falling sales due to widespread fears about pig products, consumption of which has not (so far) been conclusively linked to the disease. In the aftermath of this global hysteria, be on the lookout for swine flu lawsuits related to this law!

Fat Bastard said...

There was some stuff on Jessie Ventura's Conspiracy Theory about our food supply and medical industry. It sounded quite sinister and not all that far fetched.

Visit my Medical Holocaust blog.