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A Beef Tax That Doesn't Cut It

Not all steaks are alike. The subject here, though, isn't the difference between a ribeye and a T-bone, but among the animals themselves.

Some cattle producers believe those distinctions are being obscured in a government-sponsored generic beef campaign dubbed "Beef, It's What's for Dinner."

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Defending their turf on the basis of free speech, they brought their case to the Supreme Court last week.

While the emphasis is on beef, the lawsuit is important because it raises the question of when "government speech" trumps others' free speech.

Certain cattle producers have challenged the constitutionality of Congress's 1985 Beef Promotion Research Act, the basis of a campaign to help return beef to American dinner tables. The Act requires $1 per each head of cattle sold to pay for the campaign.

But some people in the cattle-raising business say they shouldn't be forced to pay for advertising they don't support, a requirement they say violates their First Amendment rights. They argue, for instance, that the campaign doesn't distinguish between grain-fed US beef and lesser quality grass-fed beef from other countries.

Defendants in the suit say the ads are a form of "government speech," and thus immune from First Amendment challenges. Lower courts have ruled such federal programs unconstitutional, but these Depression-era food campaigns persist.

The federal government should get out of this unnecessary advertising role. The various food industries have the wherewithal to foot the advertising bill.

And it's clear that when individuals are forced to pay for generic messages they don't agree with, change is required. As Justice Anthony M. Kennedy noted, "There is something offensive" about forcing farmers to pay for ads they do not support.