Monday, March 8, 2010

I Learned a Crazy Thing Just Yesterday . . .

Apparently our constitutional right to free speech is alive and well except when it comes to dissing the food we eat. Don’t disparage your food in Colorado or you just might get sued! Don’t talk trash about industrial farms that use pesticides on your bell peppers (which you firmly believe may cause you to get sick) or just might hear from their lawyers! If you don’t like that the way big agricultural corporations inhumanely treat animals, at the risk of your health and the health of the animals, keep it to yourself. Could this possibly be true?

Aren’t we living in the “land of the free?” Didn’t our Founding Fathers give us this sacred First Amendment right to voice our opinions, including when it comes to something as important as our fundamental right to safe and healthy food? Well, apparently not in Colorado and 12 other states (Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas). There, the big agricultural corporations have helped create laws that have scared people into keeping quiet about the connection between food manufacturing practices and food safety.

Veggie libel laws, formally known as food libel laws or food disparagement laws, were written by state legislators, with the help of big food corporations, to silence food advocates from saying things about a company’s food or food manufacturing practices which might cause the company to lose profits (what is called in legal terms, "a chilling effect"). These laws began to creep up after 1989, when CBS aired a story on 60 Minutes about a chemical sprayed on apples that was linked to cancer. The chemical company sued CBS arguing to the judge that the news story caused the company to lose $100 million in profits (the apple companies stopped using the chemical on their apples as a result of the story). In 1996, Oprah Winfrey, having just learned on her show about how most beef cattle is farmed in the U.S. (really they are factories, not a farms) said it had “ just stopped [her] cold from eating another burger.” TRANSCRIPT OF OPRAH SHOW. She was sued for that comment. After years of fighting in court, Ophrah was vindicated. Though the judge threw out the case, it was not until Oprah had spent millions of dollars defending her statement. Regardless, the lawsuit scared many people and organizations into keeping silent about what they believed to be health-hazardous practices of big agricultural corporations.

And, not too get too technical (yes, I was a lawyer in my previous life), but don’t think that because you might live in California you are safe from these laws. If you speak out against a big agricultural company that is located in Idaho, for example, your living in California (and speaking out against them in California) is of little consequence. You may just find yourself in a courtroom in Idaho (in fact, that is exactly what happened to Oprah – her show is taped in Chicago, IL but she was sued in Texas).

It is important as Americans that we speak out when we know that something is harmful to us, to others and to our planet. Big companies cannot intimidate us into keeping silent. Remember to always do your research first. Make sure that you can back up what you say. Speak to experts who have researched the topic extensively. Read as much as you can about the issue. And if you conclude that the issue needs to be brought to the public’s attention, be the voice for those who can’t speak.

For more reading check out the First Amendment Center.

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