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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"
"This issue of libel by implication is a serious threat
to journalism, not only in this state but everywhere," Babcock
Though a published report may not be false, under the state
law someone may claim the report implied damaging false information,
"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
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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