Albion Monitor /Commentary

Oprah on Trial

by Ray Hartmann

If some black lady got sick on a hamburger and sued the beef industry, it would be compared to the McDonald's coffee case
Imagine that some black lady got sick on a hamburger in Texas and decided to sue not only the grocery store where she bought it but everyone else up the food chain, including the cattlemen, the processors and every other defendant she could find. For millions.

We'd have us a story, wouldn't we?

"There they go again, those professional plaintiffs and their greedy lawyers, trying to sue our country into communism with another McDonald's coffee case!" the industry defenders would scream. "We need tort reform! We need to protect our businesses and our jobs and our way of life from people like this, ahem, African-American woman who's trying to get rich by abusing the legal system. "This isn't what the courts were meant for, dammit! We need action! We need justice! We need $250,000 liability limits, just like we were promised in the contract on America!"

Yes, "American Free Enterprise System Held Hostage By Black Lady" would be quite the story, debated by everyone from the Greta-Van-Other-Guy legal show on CNN to the corner saloon.

Well, now, what do we have here? It's a lawsuit between a black lady and the beef industry, filled with drama and intrigue and celebrities and Beef Guys and we must presume greedy lawyers on both sides.

But wait! It's the industry suing the black lady. It's the Texas Beef Guys against TV star Oprah Winfrey, a multimillion defamation case charging that her now-famous "I'll never eat hamburger again" comment on the heels of a guest's claim that mad-cow disease could happen here caused beef-futures markets to tumble, prices and profits for Texas Beef Guys to crash, grown men to cry, and the Dallas Cowboys to go 6-10 and miss the playoffs for the first time in years.

Winfrey has both the resources and the smarts to turn this judicial travesty to her own advantage
It's also the first test of an unbelievable Texas state law one of 13 of its kind (with other states, including Missouri, considering their own) which essentially makes it libel or slander to criticize a state's agricultural products or producers.

The industry's big-steaks lawsuit (sorry) invokes the same principle that every other plaintiff's lawsuit has invoked since the beginning of judicial time: Go to court and get justice in the form of damage awards from a judge and jury.

But this one must be a little different, I guess. After all, we haven't heard a word from the American Tort Reform Association, self-appointed spokesman for lawsuit defendant-victims everywhere. No "tort reformers" are railing about the huge fees being raked in by attorneys for the industry plaintiffs or about the disastrous fate that "hometown justice" could bring for the poor defendant.

No, the same industry giants who so pleadingly seek legislative relief from big bad lawsuits aren't having a whole lot of difficulty bringing themselves to use the same legal system for the same purpose: to punish the other side. What a fascinating case.

Aside from the obvious switching of shoes to the other foot, this case brings with it a threat that no McDonald's coffee case ever contained: a dramatic and dangerous challenge to the essence of the First Amendment. On the positive side, most legal experts give the Texas Beef Guys little chance of imposing free-speech limitations on Winfrey or anyone else, and even if the hometowners in Amarillo give them a win, it's highly doubtful that any appeals court will stand for it.

On the negative side, it's just amazing that legislatures would even contemplate a law, in the United of States of America, that makes it illegal to "disparage" an industry, much less pass it. The notion of making it unlawful to "disparage" a state's industry with home-state judges and jurors presumably deciding what "disparage" means sounds like something Joseph Stalin might have thought of.

Can you imagine what might have happened if such state "agricultural disparagement" laws were in force in the '60s, when tobacco companies first came under serious criticism as to the health consequences of their products? How about when fruit growers were attacked for their use of pesticides in the '70s?

If America's free-speech tradition can be nullified by an industry's ability to protect itself from "disparagement," then you can throw out the First Amendment. It's just a question of who has more money for good lawyers: the aggrieved giant industries or the individuals and little not-for-profit citizens' groups who dare to criticize them.


Yet, to her credit, Winfrey has both the resources and the smarts to turn this judicial travesty to her own advantage. She's made Amarillo her own TV studio as she goes on trial, and there is little doubt that public opinion will be overwhelmingly on her side.

Winfrey didn't become the nation's highest-paid entertainer and, arguably, the most powerful woman in America for nothing. She's an outstanding person and a master broadcaster.

And, in this case, she's absolutely in the right. The Texas Beef Guys chose the wrong target.

Ray Hartmann is the editor and publisher of the Riverfront Times

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Albion Monitor February 16, 1998 (

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