Beef against Winfrey prompts libel debate

(U-WIRE) SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — It’s time to air our beef on the whole freedom of speech vs. libel issue. Maybe you’ve heard of the Texas cattle ranchers suing popular television talk show host Oprah Winfrey over her comments about their product, a move which, not surprisingly, but stupidly gets the phrase in question repeated scores of times in news reports about the case.
They say she violated a new law that puts products under the same protection from libel and slander that people have had for a long time.
Several months ago, Winfrey had an activist on her show who spoke about “mad cow disease” and how the practice of feeding beef cattle ground animal parts can expose them to the dangerous disease. That, in turn, would put people at risk.
In response, Winfrey said his comments had “stopped (her) cold from eating another burger.”
Beef sales then dropped by millions of dollars across the country.
Now, it’s somewhat disturbing to realize the powerful influence of one person, if she happens to be on TV. When what we watch reaches what we eat, the power of the mass media is clear. It brings home the pervasiveness of a medium where a successful, even an unsuccessful, prime-time show is seen by millions of viewers.
And this only heightens the responsibility of television personalities and reporters not to slander or commit libel against anyone. But should they be so careful about badmouthing beef? A recent case involving apple libel was decided in favor of apple growers in one of the first tests of this “veggie libel” law that some say is unconstitutional.
The law, we agree, is strange.
But it’s more important that the jury and public realize the difference between free speech and irresponsible speech that damages.
When Winfrey shared her opinion on her eating habits, it was just that — her personal reaction.
The vegetarian activist she had on her show may deserve more of the blame, since he drew ostensibly factual conclusions that the cattle ranchers could prove were unsubstantiated or incorrect, which would make the accusations slanderous.
But no one, no matter how famous, should be barred from saying they dislike something or are scared to eat it. Just because Winfrey is influential doesn’t mean she loses her right to free speech.
While it doesn’t seem serious, the case is rightly highlighted in the public view. It may educate people about the importance of thinking about what they say but then not being afraid to say it, no matter how unpopular it may seem.

This staff editorial originally appeared in Wednesday’s edition of the University of Utah’s Daily Utah Chronicle.