The National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) is an alliance of 48 national, non-commercial organizations, including religious, educational, professional, artistic, labor, and civil liberties groups. United by a conviction that freedom of thought, inquiry and expression must be defended, they work to educate their members and the public about the dangers of censorship and how to oppose it.
NCAC opposes food disparagement laws, sometimes called "veggie libel" laws, which have been enacted in more than a dozen states and are pending in many others. Such laws chill public discussion of food safety in violation of free speech rights and principles. Existing laws and precedents adequately protect manufacturers, growers, distributors, and others involved in the food industry from malicious interference with legitimate business enterprises. But business-related concerns can neither destroy the constitutionally-protected right of the people to discuss pesticides, food additives, food-borne transmission of diseases, and other health-related concerns connected to the food supply, nor restrict that conversation to those who have done a thorough search of the scientific literature.
The expansive language of these statutes demonstrates their potential to chill protected speech. Most impose penalties if the speaker "should have known" that a statement disparaging to food is false, and some penalize a speaker who "implies" that food is unsafe or "casts doubt" on food safety. All define "false" statements as those not "based on reasonable and reliable scientific" evidence. Penalties include compensatory and punitive damages, costs and attorneys fees, and in some cases, treble damages. One statute would automatically include all members of an association representing food producers, unless they affirmatively remove themselves, thus multiplying many times over the potential damages.
Many of these terms are vague, and others will predictably result in lengthy and expensive contests – like the foreseeable litigation over what constitutes "reasonable and reliable scientific" evidence. Even if one could define the terms, however, these laws still represent an unacceptable restraint on speech and debate. Virtually all the risks we now take for granted – from cigarettes and alcohol to DBCP and industrial contamination of soil – were documented slowly, over time, during which the concerned communities discussed and debated risks and benefits despite scientific uncertainty. These conversations would be foreclosed under food disparagement laws, although they are an extremely important part of our democratic process. When a risk is poorly defined and poorly quantified, it is especially important for the public to be involved in risk-benefit calculations, and to assess whether the claimed benefits are real and sufficient to justify a health risk of unknown nature and magnitude.
Public debate cannot always wait for irrefutable scientific evidence – if such a thing even exists, given that reasonable scientists often disagree about the significance and reliability of scientific findings. It is ironic that the food industry seeks to invoke science in its efforts to inhibit debate over food safety, since robust debate protected by the First Amendment is itself an essential aspect of scientific inquiry.
NCAC condemns food disparagement laws because they unconstitutionally infringe on First Amendment rights by silencing public discussion about food safety. NCAC supports Foodspeak's efforts to restore the constitutionally-protected right to free speech and robust debate, as an essential tool for promoting the public welfare.