The Supreme beef

January 1, 2005 By    

The word propane was never mentioned, but a case heard by the U.S. Supreme Court last month could have huge repercussions on the future of our industry.

At issue is a national marketing program for the beef industry that requires producers to pay for advertising that not all of them want. The familiar “Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner” campaign is financed by a $1 assessment on every head of cattle sold. But some ranchers claim the generic advertising does not benefit them and that forcing them to pay for the program violates their First Amendment rights to free speech.

 Patrick Hyland
Patrick Hyland

A court ruling on the case is expected by June. If it decides the members’ challenge has merit, the court could kill the $80 million beef industry checkoff program altogether. That’s the same program that was used as a model to create the checkoff program that now generates $51 million each year to fund the Propane Education & Research Council.

A lawyer retained by PERC to monitor the case says it’s too close to predict a verdict. Challenges to other checkoff programs have yielded scattered court rulings, and the justices themselves have been erratic. A campaign for plums and peaches was upheld, but another for mushroom growers was invalidated.

It seems odd to me that the U.S. Department of Agriculture is the party defending the beef case, presumably because the checkoff was created by Congress and is supervised by the government. The agency has nothing to do with the daily operations, however.

Does that mean the propane industry would have Department of Energy lawyers at the ready to defend its checkoff program if a disgruntled marketer or producer brought a similar challenge against PERC?

I’m also perplexed as to how this argument got framed as a free-speech issue. In court, lawyers claimed the actions of the beef program are really “government speech” presented through the mouths of ranchers. Huh?

As PERC’s lawyer noted, that begs comparisons to warning labels on cigarettes – speech compelled by government and paid by tobacco industry members against their will.

To me, the issue is one of fairness. If, as they claim, some industry members are not getting any benefit from the dollars they must kick in to the campaign, should they be forced to contribute? Of course, if support isn’t mandatory, those who don’t pay to advertise will reap the benefits at the expense of those who do.

A Supreme Court ruling to strike down the beef checkoff program would not force PERC to close its doors. But it would seriously jeopardize the future of the only real force behind research and development, safety and consumer education that the propane industry has ever known.

Patrick Hyland,

Editor

phyland@advanstar.com

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