Oprah's battle with beef ranchers became First Amendment cause celebre

By David Hudson
First Amendment Center

Oprah Winfrey's battle with Texas ranchers over comments made on her show about "Mad Cow Disease" became a headline-grabbing defamation case. Given Winfrey's incredible popularity, the case attracted worldwide attention.

"It was such a big case because of who Oprah was and also because it dealt with such an important matter of public concern — food safety," says Gregg Leslie, legal defense director for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

In March 1996, British health authorities announced that scientists had linked the consumption of beef with "Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) or "Mad Cow Disease."

This postulated link between the consumption of beef and brain disease caused great panic in Britain. The panic spread to America via one of America's most popular personalities — Oprah Winfrey.

One month later, the "Oprah Winfrey Show" aired its "Dangerous Food" episode, featuring comments from vegetarian activist Howard Lyman, who believed that "Mad Cow Disease" could cause an epidemic in America bigger than AIDS.

On the show Oprah said she was "stopped cold from eating another burger." The show apparently had a devastating impact on cattle prices and sales.

On May 28, 1996, Paul F. Engler and Cactus Feeders Inc. sued Winfrey in state court on several theories, including claims under the state's food-disparagement or veggie-libel law, called the Texas False Disparagement of Perishable Food Products Act, and several common-law tort theories. These included business disparagement, defamation and negligence.

The case was later moved to federal court and consolidated with a separate action filed by the Texas Beef Group. The case proceeded to a jury. Before submitting the case to the jury, U.S. District Judge Mary Lou Robinson dismissed the claims under the food-disparagement statute. The district court judge questioned the applicability of the statute to live "fed cattle."

Robinson also rejected the plaintiffs' defamation claims because they could not meet the 'of and concerning' requirement. "None of the Plaintiffs were mentioned by name on the April 16, 1996 Oprah Winfrey Show, and it is stipulated that this program did not mention by name the State of Texas, the Texas Panhandle, or West Texas," Robinson wrote in her Feb. 26, 1998, opinion.

Robinson submitted only the plaintiffs' business-disparagement claim to the jury. In February 1998, the jury rejected the plaintiffs' claim.

On appeal, a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Feb. 9, 2000, in Texas Beef Group v. Winfrey, 201 F.3d 680 (5th Cir. 2000) that the lower court decision should stand.

The plaintiffs challenged the district court's dismissal of their claim under the False Disparagement of Perishable Food Products Act. Passed in 1995, that law provides that a person can be held liable for damages suffered by the producers of a "perishable food product" if that person "knowingly disseminates false information" to the public stating or implying that the producer's product is not safe for public consumption.

The lower court had determined that live cattle did not constitute a "perishable food product" and that, alternatively, the defendants did not knowingly disseminate false information about beef.

Federal appeals court decision

In February 2000, a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals also ruled in favor of Oprah in Engler v. Winfrey. The appeals court determined that even though the "Oprah Winfrey Show" may have "melodramatized" the "Mad Cow Disease" scare, the show and its guests did not defame the beef producers.

"Exaggeration does not equal defamation, the panel wrote, citing an earlier 5th Circuit decision.

"Lyman's opinions, though strongly stated, were based on truthful, established fact, and are not actionable under the First Amendment," the court wrote. "Stripped to its essentials, the cattlemen's complaint is that the 'Dangerous Food' show did not present the Mad Cow issue in the light most favorable to United States beef."

The plaintiffs contended that the district court judge improperly instructed the jury on the business-disparagement claim. They argued that the instruction unnecessarily required the jury to determine that false statements were made specifically regarding their cattle. They also argued that the trial judge erred by requiring the jury to find that false statements were made "of and concerning the cattle" of the plaintiffs as opposed to the more general "of and concerning beef."

However, the appeals court determined that counsel for the plaintiffs did not preserve these issues by objecting to the alleged errors when they were made.

Judge Edith H. Jones wrote a concurring opinion. While she agreed with and joined in the court's opinion with regard to the business-disparagement issue, she wrote separately because she believed that the False Disparagement of Perishable Food Products Act did apply to live cattle.

"The purpose of the statute's definition is to distinguish perishable from processed food products, not to eliminate protection for some of the farmers and ranchers for whom the statute was intended," Jones wrote.

Many legal experts had hoped that, particularly to the high visibility of the case and its famous defendant, the lawsuit would serve as a test case for the constitutionality of food-disparagement statutes. More than a dozen states have similar veggie-libel laws and many of them relax the burden of proof imposed on a traditional defamation plaintiff. The 5th Circuit even acknowledged this, writing:

The cattlemen's complaints regarding the 'Dangerous Food' broadcast of the Oprah Winfrey Show presented one of the first opportunities to interpret a food disparagement statute. The insufficiency of the cattlemen's evidence, however, renders unnecessary a complete inquiry into the Act's scope.

The plaintiffs petitioned for en banc review but were denied in April 2000.

Impact

While the court failed to strike down the Texas food-libel law, the decision still had a discernible impact on the public's understanding of defamation and the First Amendment.

"It certainly seems to have stopped the enthusiasm for product disparagement statutes," Leslie said. "I think the decision taught the public a lot about defamation law and the First Amendment in general. It taught the public that even if a statement is wrong, there is an important reason to allow even false statements to be made on public issues. There must be breathing space for the First Amendment."

Perhaps Oprah summed it up best herself when she stated: "Free speech rocks."