Court: ‘Got Milk?’ Violates Farmers’ Free Speech

WASHINGTON, D.C. The “Got milk?” dairy campaign, famous for plastering milk mustaches on celebrity faces, violates the free speech rights of farmers forced to pay for the ads, a federal appeals court ruled on Tuesday.

The unanimous 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision overturns a lower court ruling that dairy farmers Joseph and Brenda Cochran had to contribute to the National Dairy Promotion Board campaign even though the couple felt the ads did little to support sustainable agricultural products, such as milk from cows that are not injected with hormones.

“The court made clear that just because an industry is regulated, and even if it’s heavily regulated, that doesn’t mean the members of that industry lose their First Amendment rights,” said the Cochrans’ attorney, Steve Simpson, of the Washington, D.C.-based group Institute for Justice.

“Got milk?” is the latest industry promotion whose funding has been found in violation of the First Amendment.

A federal appeals court ruled in July that ranchers could not be forced to pay a $1-per-head fee on cattle to support the marketing campaign that spawned the slogan “Beef: It’s what’s for dinner.” And an appeals court struck down a similar fee in October that had supported the ads calling pork “The other white meat.”

In the latest ruling, the 3rd Circuit said the government’s interest in promoting the dairy industry wasn’t substantial enough to justify an infringement on the Cochrans’ free speech rights by requiring them to help pay for the ads.

Lawyers defending the law on behalf of the U.S. Department of Agriculture have said because dairy prices and distribution are tightly regulated, a joint marketing campaign is the only effective way to compete with other beverages.

Attorney Matthew M. Collette, who represented the Justice Department in the case, did not return a telephone message left Tuesday seeking comment.

Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.