JEFFERSON CITY- In Texas cattle country, the lawsuit against talk show host Oprah Winfrey continues to play to a packed courthouse. Lacking the participation of celebrity players, Missouri has joined the debate on "food disparagement" laws quietly.
If a bill introduced by state representatives Sam Leake, D-Laddonia, and Gary Wiggins, D-Kansas City, becomes law, Missouri would join 13 other states that hold people liable for disseminating "false and defamatory" statements about agricultural producers and their products.
Popularly dubbed "veggie libel," such legislation has given rise to more than produce-inspired puns. Agricultural interests argue that their livelihoods can be threatened by irresponsible remarks made in the mass media. Environmental and first amendment activists argue, however, that such a law would have a chilling effect on free speech.
The current version of the bill would allow a plaintiff to sue for actual damages and punitive damages of at least triple the amount of actual damages when a person "purposely or knowingly" spreads false and defamatory statements about a producer or its products.
Those who make such statements about entire categories of products or producers could be sued even when the statements are not made "purposely or knowingly." Animals and animal products are included in the definition of agricultural product.
The state's cattle industry probably saw its worst year in 1996, said Jay Truitt, executive vice president of the Missouri Cattlemen's Association. The show for which Winfrey is being sued aired on April 16, 1996. Truitt said that the industry has not yet recovered to its pre-1996 levels.
Truitt believes that such legislation can protect his industry from reckless speech.
"It is absolutely one of our highest priorities," he said of the bill. "We don't want to limit anyone's speech."
Truitt is "pretty optimistic" that such a law won't easily be abused.
"It's not going to limit free speech of the media," Truitt said. "It'll be a good tool for everyone."
Ken Midkiff, program director of the Ozark chapter of the Sierra Club argues otherwise. While proponents argue that small producers, those without the resources to combat celebrity figures and their remarks, will benefit most from the bill, Midkiff said it is designed to squelch criticism of "agri-industries and their industrial methods." Midkiff argues that the bill's language would make him liable for making statements that reflected his belief in the superiority of organic produce over those of industrial farms.
"I think its a very specific, targeted action," Midkiff said.
"We have no particular quarrel with traditional farmers," Midkiff said. "What the big producers are doing is holding up the small producers as a shield. That's B.S."
Meanwhile, even those whose main concerns aren't in the production of hogs, corn or cattle are paying attention to the proposed legislation.
Doug Crews, executive director of the Missouri Press Association, said that his organization has alerted its members.
"I think all citizens need to be suspicious when laws are passed that would control public debate," Crews said. "I'm always worried about legislation like this. I think you'll see more comment from newspapers out there."
The American Civil Liberties Union has also taken a position against the bill. The organization's national headquarters issued a statement this year condemning as unconstitutional these kind of proposals.
Deborah Jacobs, executive director of the ACLU of Eastern Missouri, said that her organization is ready to lobby aggressively against the bill.
"Why is it important to single out these particular areas?" Jacob asked rhetorically. She replied that food contamination issues are of serious public interest, answering her own question.