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Court to decide if beef fees are legal

Associated Press

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court agreed Monday to decide if the government can force cattle producers to pay for research into cow diseases and for catchy ads promoting “Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner.”

For nearly 20 years beef producers have had to pay fees that are used to promote the industry, but lower courts have ruled that the beef programs – and others like them – violate the First Amendment guarantee of free speech.

Opponents of such fees contend that the mandatory fees infringed on their free speech rights because they are forced to pay for some marketing campaigns with which they don’t agree.

Justices will hear arguments this fall in appeals from the Bush administration and Nebraska cattlemen. Solicitor General Theodore Olson said a lower court ruling against the government threatens successful public relations campaigns and important research and public education on mad cow disease.

“Especially at a time of increasing public concern about food safety and nutrition issues, there is no justification for the evisceration” of beef and pork programs, Olson told justices in a filing.

The case forces the court to return to a question it has visited before: Do mandatory government advertising programs violate the free-speech rights of producers who disagree with how the money is spent?

In 2001, the court ruled that a mandatory campaign for the mushroom industry violated the First Amendment. But justices have allowed joint advertisements in heavily regulated industries such as California fruit production.

A panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said that American beef producers do not have to pay a $1-per-head fee on cattle sold in the United States, which raised about $86 million in 2001. Since 1985, livestock producers have had to pay money into the program for advertising, education and research programs. The money was spent by the Cattlemen’s Beef Promotion and Research Board and state beef councils.

In addition, pork producers won a lower court ruling striking down a similar program – which the Bush administration has also appealed to the Supreme Court. That case will be settled by the court after it decides the similar issues in the beef case.

In the cattle case, the government was sued by the Livestock Marketing Association and ranchers who sell cattle in South Dakota and Montana. Their attorney, Philip Olsson, said that government is interfering with the private speech of the ranchers, who disagree with the marketing strategy used with their money.

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