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Petitioning Secretary, U.S. Department of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and 3 others

Change Food Libel Laws to Allow us to Know the Truth about our Food

Change Food Libel Laws to Allow us to Know the Truth about our Food and to allow journalists and reporters to document and expose the potentially harmful poisons in our food.

We believe that 13 states in The United States of America have infringed the right of free speech as stated in the First Amendment:
"The First Amendment to the Constitution states in part that "Congress shall pass no law abridging freedom of speech or of the press." The First Amendment exists, according to the Court, to help protect and foster the free flow and exchange of ideas, particularly on public or political issues. The Founding Fathers of the United States valued open debates regarding political issues or governments, determining that citizens in a democracy need a free marketplace of ideas in order to become informed and make good decisions. "


In 1964, in New York Times v. Sullivan, the United States Supreme Court held that the First Amendment protects individuals who make defamatory statements related to matters of public concern, so long as such statements are not made with actual malicious or in reckless disregard of the truth. The Court reached this decision “against the background of a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.” (1) Their decision set the precedent for a heightened burden of proof in defamation cases that involve matters of public concern.(2)

But nearly forty years later, at the urging of major meat, dairy, and agricultural lobbyists, states have began adopting “food disparagement laws,” designed to make it easier for food producers to hold individuals liable for criticizing their products. Thirteen states (Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Texas) have adopted some form of these disparagement laws. Although they all differ slightly, these laws all lower the actual malice and falsity standard set out in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan. They also allow the food business plaintiff to collect punitive damages and attorney’s fees against the defendant, in addition to any economic damages that stem from the defendant’s statements.

These food disparagement laws have come to be known as “veggie libel laws” because they have often been used against animal rights and vegetarian activists working to expose the harmful consequences of meat consumption. Celebrated talk show hostess Oprah Winfrey became a victim of a veggie libel suit when the Texas Beef Group sued her and former cattle rancher turned critic Howard Lyman, for doing a show on the dangers of Mad Cow Disease. As the Oprah case revealed, these laws chill the public’s right to engage in free speech by subjecting anyone wishing to speak out about food-product related issues (such as health risks, ethical implications, environmental impacts, etc.) to civil damages and legal costs. Imagine if such obstacles existed when Upton Sinclair was exposing the safety and health risks of slaughterhouses, or others were questioning the safety of using cocaine in Coca-Cola.

Food disparagement laws completely contradict the Supreme Court’s wisdom that the public should be allowed to participate, without fear of reprisal, in debates about matters of social and political concern, even if they are controversial or potentially defamatory. As the judge who threw out the case against Oprah Winfrey stated, “It would be difficult to conceive of any topic of discussion that could be of greater concern and interest to all Americans than the safety of the food that they eat.”

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This petition was delivered to:
  • Secretary, U.S. Department of Agriculture
    Tom Vilsack
  • The US House Comitee of Agriculture
    House Comitte of Agriculture
  • President of the United States of America
    President Barack Obama
  • The FDA
    The FDA

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