Texas cattle ranchers' association sues Oprah Winfrey - Mad 'cowboy' disease strikes free speech!


Note by deleonism.org web site editor:
A group of Texas cattle ranching capitalists
sued Oprah Winfrey and Howard Lyman in 1998.
After a trial lasting approximately two months,
the court decided in favor of the defendants.
MARCH 1998
Vol. 107 No. 12



It recently came to light that one can be sued for deriding the consumption of beef! Indeed, an association of Texas Panhandle cattle feedlot owners -- acting on a 1995 Texas statute prohibiting the false disparagement of perishable food products -- have filed a lawsuit against talk-show host Oprah Winfrey for having defamed the consumption of beef. During a 1996 outbreak of "mad cow" disease in England, Winfrey and guest Howard Lyman, a critic of the beef industry, criticized the consumption of beef. It is alleged by lawyers for the plaintiffs that the on-air criticism led to a $10 million drop in the "value" (they meant the price) of the commodity.

Winfrey expressed herself as being strongly opposed to the continued consumption of beef after the British government had warned of a possible link between mad cow disease and a new strain of Creuzfeldt-Jakob disease, a degenerative brain disorder that affects humans.

During the trial in Amarillo, "The Oprah Winfrey Show" has continued to be produced and aired. Her network and sponsors are capitalizing on her notoriety, raking in profits that will probably exceed any judgment the federal court might assess should the plaintiffs succeed. In fact, a festive atmosphere prevails in the Panhandle while the trial goes on, and the media is making the best of the event.

Given short shrift in the press are the broader implications of the suit on free speech. Over the past few years, a number of states have passed restrictive legislation against criticism of perishable food products. In those states that have thwarted such legislation, agricapitalism continues to pressure politicians. It is in the interests of agricapitalism to stifle criticism since attacking food products threatens agriprofits.

It is well known that many food items are unhealthy or unwholesome, while others have been found to be contaminated. If it is not chemical additives, pesticides or processing that unfavorably alter many foods, then it is fat, salt or the sugar content. Indeed, the creation of oversight agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration attest to the inclination to debase those commodities. The growing popularity of health-food stores also attests to the prevalence of the belief that unhealthy food products dominate dining tables throughout the country.

The plaintiffs against Winfrey have insisted they are not out to stifle free speech. One of their expert witnesses, Dr. William D. Hueston, an authority on mad cow disease and a former employee of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, complimented Mr. Lyman "as an example of what makes America the great country it is now. And that is we have freedom for people to voice their opinions." However, he also claimed that Winfrey had created a "lynch mob" mentality before acknowledging that he received $25,000 for his expert testimony.

Another partisan of the feedlot capitalists declared, "This trial isn't about beef. It's about being responsible for what you say." Rubbish! Lies, falsifications and distortions are abundantly employed in marketing almost everything, especially food products. Yet, laws are erected to silence criticism of those products.

As an example, the February edition of SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN discussed misleading claims for dietary health supplements. Among those cited was "ginkai," an extract of the ginkgo tree widely trumpeted as "clinically proven to improve memory and concentration." SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN noted that while "some studies have shown that ginkgo improves mental functioning in people with dementia, none has proved that it serves as a brain tonic for the healthy." Meanwhile the product sells handsomely with a high price for 50 or 100 tablets that are recommended to be taken twice daily.

Similarly with St. John's wort (hypericum perforatum), which is sold as an antidepressant herb to mitigate the oceans of trouble engendered by capitalism. It has greater clinically tested support than ginkgo, but lacks the rigorous requirements demanded by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. They are demanding FDA approval much to the chagrin of the dietary supplement industry.

It is evident that a segment of agricapitalist profits are at stake in the Amarillo lawsuit. It is also evident that when it suits profitmaking purposes freedom of speech is highly coveted, a God-given right, patriotic and as American as apple pie. Hence, lies, distortions and falsifications in the service of profitmaking is "freedom of speech." However, when it is exercised against profits it is libelous. When it is against the whole system of profitmaking itself, it is seditious, treasonous, etc.

Capitalism and freedom of speech are uneasy bedfellows at best, and the history of the socialist movement illustrates the fact to perfection.