LOS ANGELES – When Marielle Williamson was a senior at Eagle Rock High School, she wanted to make a difference in how her peers viewed cow’s milk.
As the president of the Animal Awareness Club, she sought to educate her peers on the “lesser-known effects” that food choices have on animals and people. Her school hallways were covered in “Got Milk?” posters. But her own research showed how the dairy industry can have negative impact on the environment, including from methane gas emissions, as well as on animal welfare. She wanted her peers to know there were milk alternatives.
So she asked her school administrators about having a table outside the cafeteria where she could hand out literature that promoted plant-based milk options. But administrators said she could only do so if she promoted dairy milk as well, Williamson said, which went against her beliefs.
“It was kind of like, ‘Wow, this is serious,’” she said. “The hold the dairy industry has over schools is so strong that I can’t even promote soy milk at my school.”
In May, Williamson, along with the advocacy group Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, filed a federal lawsuit against her school administrators and the Los Angeles Unified School District, alleging that her First Amendment rights were violated when school officials barred her from sharing material about plant-based milk options without also including information on dairy milk. The suit also named the U.S. Department of Agriculture; Williamson alleged that the agency’s policies on providing dairy milk in school cafeterias are too broad and chill the speech of students critical of cow’s milk.
Last week, L.A. Unified settled the lawsuit and acknowledged that students have a First Amendment right to nondisruptive speech that’s critical of dairy products.
Williamson and the Physicians Committee, of which she was a student member, view the settlement as a victory for their cause.
“It’s a really small step in toppling the monopoly of dairy in our school meals,” said Deborah Press, general counsel for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. “But we’ve just enshrined the rights of students to speak out about it.”
The USDA, which did not join the settlement, has filed a motion to dismiss the case, Press said, but Williamson and the committee intend to pursue it and challenge federal statutes that, in part, require schools in the National School Lunch Program to serve cow’s milk during meals as a condition to receive federal funding.
“LAUSD wasn’t the problem here; they were doing their best to comply with these dogmatic federal rules,” Press said, adding that the free speech suit is intended to target the dairy industry’s role in federal school meal programs.
In order to receive a dairy milk substitute, a student is required to provide a note from a doctor or parent citing a medical or dietary need to restrict the student’s choice of milk.
The federal policy also states that schools in the program “shall not directly or indirectly restrict the sale or marketing of fluid milk products by the school” at any time while on school premises or at school events.
That broadness of the statute, the lawsuit alleges, resulted in Williamson’s free speech being “objectively chilled by a reasonable fear” that she would be punished if she criticized dairy milk on school grounds.
A USDA spokesperson said in an emailed statement that the agency “remains committed to ensuring that its child nutrition programs, including school meals, are powerful tools to ensure that children, regardless of race, ethnicity or background, have access to nutritious and affordable food.”
People of color can benefit from alternative milk options. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, Black, Indigenous, Asian and Latino Americans are among those most likely to suffer from lactose intolerance, which can result in digestive issues including bloating, diarrhea and gas after consuming milk products.
In L.A. Unified schools, where Latinos make up a large majority, students can request almond or rice milk but require permission from a licensed healthcare professional. They can obtain soy milk with the signature of a parent or legal guardian.
As part of the settlement, which did not call for monetary damages, the district agreed to send out a memo reminding school staff that students’ free speech and expression extend to their views on dairy milk – which Press called one of the best parts of the agreement. The settlement also states that the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine will donate money to the district to support offering soy milk to students.
Press said the committee will donate an estimated $40,000 that could go toward a program to establish a long-term plan to offer dairy alternatives in the country’s second-largest school district.
Shannon Haber, a spokesperson for LAUSD, said in a statement that the district “takes pride in empowering students to amplify their voice on issues they find important.”
“Our Food Services Program follows USDA guidelines, and we continue to support our students with nutritious meals and healthy alternatives for those who have specific dietary requests and requirements,” Haber said in an email.
Eugene Volokh, who teaches 1st Amendment law at UCLA, said Williamson and the Physicians Committee will have a harder time arguing their case against the USDA because the federal policies limiting speech apply to schools, not students.
“The federal law basically constrains what schools say; it doesn’t constrain what students say,” Volokh said. “Under these circumstances, I very much doubt Williamson and the Physicians Committee will be able to get the relief they seek against the federal government because they’re not the school.”
For Williamson, the settlement with the district represents hope.
She said she is proud that LAUSD has acknowledged students’ 1st Amendment rights and hopes that students will feel empowered to speak up at their schools.
“This discussion is how minds change and how we come together,” she said.
Now a student at Duke University, Williamson is studying international relations and public health, and intends to work in government and help create a global shift toward a plant-based food system to address climate change.