Next on Supreme Court Menu: Beef and Free Speech

By Warren Richey writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, December 8, 2004 | Go to article overview

Next on Supreme Court Menu: Beef and Free Speech


Warren Richey writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Blame it on chicken. Blame it on fish.

For years, beef was considered the bad boy of American cuisine. Rising health concerns about red meat and soaring prices in the 1980s plunged the beef industry into crisis.

The problem got so bad that in 1985, Congress passed the Beef Act - a law aimed at improving the image of steaks, burgers, and even pot roast. The centerpiece of the effort was a generic advertisement: "Beef: It's What's for Dinner."

The ad helped turn things around. Since 1998, beef consumption in the US has risen 20 percent, according to one academic study. But now questions have emerged about how Congress chose to fund the well- known beef advertisements.

An industry organization, the Livestock Marketing Association, and a group of ranchers are challenging the constitutionality of the Beef Act - saying it forces some beef producers to pay for advertising that they do not support.

Wednesday, their "beef" arrives at the US Supreme Court where the justices must decide whether the generic advertising violates First Amendment protections against coerced speech and coerced association. If the Beef Act is struck down, analysts say, similar challenges by disaffected milk and pork producers could imperil the "Got Milk?" and "The Other White Meat" campaigns.

Under 15 such promotional programs, industry members are required by law to pay an assessment to fund generic advertising and other government-backed efforts aimed at benefiting an entire industry. The Beef Act requires payment of $1 for each head of cattle sold.

Some ranchers oppose the ads because they do not distinguish between higher-quality grain-fed US beef and grass-fed beef from abroad. They say American ranchers should not be forced to pay for ads that help foreign competitors, even though importers also pay the $1-per-head fee.

On the other side of the case are outgoing Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman and ranchers and beef industry groups that support the Beef Act. They argue that the ads are a form of government speech, immune from First Amendment challenge.

"The First Amendment does not give citizens - including beef producers - the right to avoid federal assessments simply because they disagree with the way in which those assessments are spent," says Gregory Garre, a Washington, D.C., lawyer in his brief on behalf of Nebraska Cattlemen Inc.

Laurence Tribe, a Harvard Law professor representing Beef Act challengers, says government involvement in the promotional effort does not reduce the unconstitutionally coercive aspects of the measure.

"Compulsion to support a government message is the very essence of what the First Amendment forbids," he writes in his brief to the court. …

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