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Cattleman Take Oprah Beef to Court

January 20, 1998

AMARILLO, Texas (AP) _ Animal rights advocates in cow suits joined reporters and spectators outside a federal courthouse today for the start of a beef industry lawsuit against talk show host Oprah Winfrey.

Potential jurors gathered at the courthouse for the start of jury selection, but there was no immediate word whether that process had started. Media access inside the courtroom was limited and the judge imposed a gag order on attorneys in the case.

Ms. Winfrey is accused of falsely spreading a report that American meat could cause mad cow disease in the United States.

Cattle producers who sued Ms. Winfrey would appear to have a definite home-field advantage in a town whose largest private employer is a slaughterhouse and in a courthouse where a livestock mural is painted above the elevators.

But the queen of television talk has the advantage of celebrity. There was nearly a stampede for tickets after word got out that she would tape her show in Amarillo on Thursday and Friday. They wanted to see the woman who is so powerful that even her book picks become national bestsellers.

``There’s push and pull on both sides,″ said Bobby Lee, co-owner of the Big Texan Steak Ranch, home of the free 72-ounce steak to anyone who can eat it in an hour.

Amarillo cattle feeder Paul Engler is suing Ms. Winfrey and vegetarian activist Howard Lyman over comments they made about beef safety on her April 16, 1996, show.

During the show, Lyman said that feeding ground-up animal parts to cattle, a practice that was banned in the United States last summer, could spread mad cow disease to humans in the United States. To applause from the studio audience, Ms. Winfrey exclaimed: ``It has just stopped me from eating another burger!″

After the broadcast, already slumping cattle prices fell to some of their lowest levels in a decade, and Engler claimed he lost $6.7 million. He and other plaintiffs who later joined the suit are seeking to recoup total losses of more than $12 million, plus other, unspecified damages.

Free speech rights are expected to take center stage, though defense attorneys have also blamed oversupply and decreased demand for the industry collapse.

Ms. Winfrey’s lawyers tried unsuccessfully to have the case moved from this Panhandle town of 165,000 to Dallas, a more cosmopolitan city about a six-hour drive away.

According to court documents, defense attorneys would be OK with an Amarillo trial if they could discuss the case publicly. Instead, they are bound by a gag order imposed by U.S. District Judge Mary Lou Robinson.

Industry insiders say the less heard about the case, the better.

Clark Willingham, president-elect of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, worries that the trial will dredge up fears about mad cow disease _ the thing that started the case in the first place.

Mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, is a brain-destroying disease that has ravaged cattle in Britain since the late 1980s. It is believed to have been spread by cattle feed containing ground-up sheep parts, but it was not until 1996 that British scientists announced that humans may have contracted the disease by eating the beef.

The lawsuit could be the biggest test yet of ``veggie libel″ laws that have been enacted in more than a dozen states to protect agricultural products from false and disparaging remarks.

``You can’t run up in a theater and say, `Fire!′ or `Bomb!‴ said Bob Turner, a state lawmaker and farmer who wrote Texas’ 1995 agriculture disparagement law. ``Freedom of speech ends where other people’s freedoms begin and where the truth is not known to be involved.″

Seattle attorney Bruce Johnson, who successfully defended CBS against apple growers upset over a 1989 ``60 Minutes″ report about the growth regulator Alar, believes such laws violate the Constitution.

``The question here is not whether someone is yelling `Fire!′ in a theater,″ he said. ``The question is whether they can discuss whether there is a fire.″

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