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Saturday, June 27, 1998

Oprah lawyer: Food libel law bad news for journalism

By KELLEY SHANNON / Associated Press Writer

SAN ANTONIO (AP) -- The attorney who successfully defended Oprah Winfrey in a lawsuit brought by Panhandle cattlemen warned newspaper editors and publishers Friday to beware of the state's "veggie libel" law.

The Texas False Defamation of Perishable Food Products law doesn't require the speech in question to be specific and allows plaintiffs to claim libel by implication, lawyer Charles "Chip" Babcock said.

"This issue of libel by implication is a serious threat to journalism, not only in this state but everywhere," Babcock said.

Though a published report may not be false, under the state law someone may claim the report implied damaging false information, Babcock said.

"You may never have intended in your wildest dreams to be saying that in your article," Babcock told members of the Texas Press Association at their annual summer convention.

Babcock, a partner in the Dallas law firm Jackson Walker, said he hopes the Texas Legislature repeals the statute in its next session.

Ultimately, the law may be declared unconstitutional, something the judge in Ms. Winfrey's case declined to do, Babcock said.

Twelve other states also have "veggie libel" laws, which protect perishable foods from knowingly false and defamatory statements. The Texas law was originally cited in the lawsuit Ms. Winfrey won in February in federal court in Amarillo.

Cattlemen blamed her April 1996 program dealing with mad cow disease for faltering beef prices and sued her for more than $11 million. On the show, Ms. Winfrey said she was "stopped cold" from eating another burger.

Ms. Winfrey's side argued the dip in cattle prices was caused by high feed costs, oversupply and low prices of competing meats.

The judge threw out the part of the lawsuit dealing with "veggie libel," saying the suit didn't meet the "perishable food" requirement of the law. Instead, the legal battle became a business dispute.

Lawyers for Ms. Winfrey successfully argued her speech was protected by the First Amendment.

Newspaper editors and publishers should be glad about the jury's decision, Babcock said.

"It was a good verdict for Oprah, but it was a good verdict for all of you," he said. "There is a firm, rock-solid belief in our right to freedom of speech and freedom of the press."

 

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