Court upholds 'Beef: It's What's for Dinner'

The justices rule that First Amendment protections don't apply to the beef campaign, alienating some ranchers.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Beef industry officials and the US secretary of Agriculture have won their battle to maintain a $1 per head of cattle assessment to finance advertisements aimed at persuading people to eat more red meat.

The well-known generic ads include the campaign "Beef: It's What's For Dinner." They helped the industry pull out of a slump in the 1980s. But some ranchers and others in the beef industry complained that the congressionally mandated, industrywide funding requirement forced many beef producers to pay for advertising that they did not support.

In an important First Amendment ruling, the US Supreme Court Monday upheld the 1985 Beef Act. In the 6-to-3 decision, the high court said the Beef Act did not violate constitutional protections against coerced speech.

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"The message set out in the beef promotions is from beginning to end the message established by the federal government," Justice Antonin Scalia writes for the majority. He says the rigorous First Amendment protections that apply to private speech do not apply when it is the government controlling and delivering the message.

The action lends constitutional support to as many as 15 other generic advertising programs, including such campaigns as "Got Milk" and "The Other White Meat," which promotes pork.

Some US cattle ranchers objected to the beef ads because they did not draw a distinction between higher-quality grain-fed US beef and grass-fed beef from abroad. They questioned whether it was proper for the government to order them to pay into a program that in their view helps promote an inferior product being sold by their competitors.

Under the Beef Act, importers of foreign beef pay the same $1 per head assessment.

The Beef Act was supported by the US secretary of Agriculture and other industry officials who stressed that no single rancher could achieve the same marketing results. By spreading the cost of generic advertising across the entire industry, they said, everyone would pay something and also reap a reward.

In a dissent, Justice David Souter said the beef promotion was not a form of government speech because it did not claim authorship of the campaign. "Otherwise there is no check whatever on government power to compel special speech subsidies," he says.

"If the government relies on the government-speech doctrine to compel specific groups to fund speech with targeted taxes, it must make itself politically accountable by indicating that the content actually is a government message," Justice Souter says. "The Beef Act fails to require the government to show its hand."

In his majority opinion, Justice Scalia says there is no difference in funding objectionable government speech through general government revenues or via an assessment levied upon a particular industry group. "Citizens may challenge compelled support of private speech, but have no First Amendment right not to fund government speech," he says. "And that is no less true when the funding is achieved through targeted assessments devoted exclusively to the program to which the assessed citizens object."

Joining Scalia's majority opinion are Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Clarence Thomas, and Stephen Breyer. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg filed an opinion concurring in the judgment.

Dissenting were Justices Souter, John Paul Stevens, and Anthony Kennedy.

The high court has addressed similar farm product promotion efforts in recent years. In 1997, the justices voted 5 to 4 to uphold a generic marketing program promoting California peaches, nectarines, and plums. Four years later, the court, in a 6-to-3 decision, struck down a mushroom promotion effort as an unconstitutional form of coerced speech.

The California tree-fruit program was upheld because it involved more than just advertisements: It also encompassed a regulatory process and lobbying on behalf of that state's tree-fruit industry.

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