The Center for Science in the Public Interest defended the news media’s "First Amendment rights" in a statement issued Wednesday urging a circuit judge to dismiss the defamation lawsuit Beef Products Inc. filed against ABC News over its coverage of lean, finely textured beef (LFTB).
“The right of reporters, bloggers, and other members of news media to speak to government or industry whistle blowers and to broadcast or publish their findings is at the heart of the First Amendment,” CSPI executive director Michael Jacobson said in the statement. “The lawsuit waged by BPI against ABC News and people the network interviewed is a blatant, even thuggish, attempt to chill the free speech of journalists, government scientists, and anyone else who wants to speak out through the news media. We hope Judge [Cheryle] Gering dismisses it altogether.”
The statement came after an ABC lawyer earlier this week asked Gering to dismiss the case, arguing that despite giving it the unsavory “pink slime” moniker, ABC never hinted that LFTB was unsafe.
“It’s obvious why BPI prefers the term ‘lean finely textured beef’ to ‘pink slime’,” Jacobson added. “’Pink slime’ is not a particularly appetizing term. But free speech certainly trumps a meat company’s public relations problem. CSPI certainly reserves its right to use the term ‘pink slime’ even though we acknowledge that lean finely textured beef is safe. But in the unlikely event the company were to prevail in its lawsuit, news reporting on virtually everything that Americans come into contact with, from food to drugs to cars to cribs, would change overnight. And people would have no clue what stories weren’t being reported for fear of a lawsuit from a thin-skinned corporate bully like BPI.”
The South Dakota-based meat processor filed the lawsuit in September 2012 and is seeking $1.2 billion in damages over ABC’s coverage of LFTB, which the company claims led to a loss of confidence in its products by consumers and retailers by making the product appear unsafe or unhealthy for consumption.
CSPI spokesperson Jeff Cronin told FNU he doesn’t know how likely it is the judge will grant the motions to dismiss, adding, “the important thing is whether journalists and prospective government or corporate whistle blowers can talk to each other, and whether journalists can report, without fear of a lawsuit hanging over their heads.
“And it's not just food: It doesn't take a lot of imagination to see how all kinds of reporting could be chilled by suits such as BPI’s. We never raised food safety issues in connection with LFTB but if the controversy raised people's consciousness or curiosity a bit about what's in our food that seems like a good thing. We're all certainly better off with media outlets unafraid to report on food controversies.”
A lawyer for BPI declined to comment, given that the motion is pending. The timeframe for a ruling is unknown.