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The Beef With Oprah

February 2, 1998



A certain fiesta atmosphere surrounds the Oprah Winfrey trial in Amarillo, Texas. The courtroom sessions, determining whether Ms. Winfrey and a guest criminally disparaged the beef industry, are overshadowed by the daily taping of her show from Amarillo's Little Theater.

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But this is a serious business, raising important legal and ethical questions.

What are the merits of food disparagement laws such as that which landed Oprah in court? States (13 so far) have passed such laws at the urging of agricultural interests. From the farmer's or rancher's perspective, such protection against irresponsible public statements that threaten their livelihoods is reasonable. They have a point. Food scares have rippled through American society in recent years. In some cases, such as the alar scare concerning apples, unsound data nearly ruined an industry.

Winfrey's comments repudiating hamburger, coming after a vegetarian guest speculated that feed-lot practices could bring an outbreak of mad cow disease in the US, were followed by a 10 percent drop in the price of cattle futures. (Other commodities futures, too, were falling at the time.)

Is the real intent of such laws to protect an industry by chilling free speech on subjects it finds objectionable? There's little question a chilling effect is likely - and intended. The Texas cattle industry, we hope, won't win its suit against Winfrey, but its perseverance with the suit will make others (especially those with shallower pockets than Oprah) think twice before taking them on.

The Texas law, by the way, puts a heavy burden of proof on plaintiffs. They have to show intentional, or reckless, disregard for the truth - the same constitutional standard put on public figures who try to sue their detractors for libel. In effect, the cattlemen have to prove that Winfrey set out to get them in disregard of the facts.

That's extremely unlikely. But it wouldn't be a bad outcome if an eventually exonerated Oprah's many colleagues in the media talk world were given a little ethical nudge by the trial in Texas.