Uncle Sam Wants You to Eat More Beef


Yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a federal program under which cattle ranchers are required to pay for generic beef-boosting ads. Writing for the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia said the "Beef: It's What's for Dinner" ads amount to "government speech" and therefore do not raise First Amendment concerns. That conclusion was contrary to the logic of a 2001 decision in which a majority of the Court (including Scalia) ruled that generic mushroom ads funded by a similar levy on producers amounted to "compelled speech" and therefore violated their First Amendment rights.

The three justices who dissented from yesterday's decision noted that the government is trying to have it both ways, since the beef ads do not indicate that they are sponsored by the government, saying only that they are "funded by America's Beef Producers." "If government relies on the government-speech doctrine to compel specific groups to fund speech with targeted taxes," wrote Justice David Souter, "it must make itself politically accountable by indicating that the content actually is a government message, not just the statement of one self-interested group the government is currently willing to invest with power."

As much as I'd like to withdraw my financial support for, say, the government's anti-drug ads, I can see the problems with a general rule that says taxpayers cannot be forced to subsidize speech with which they disagree. Are my First Amendment rights violated every time John McCain opens his mouth, since I help to pay his salary? But the mandatory commodity ads do seem different, partly because they are presented as messages from the producers themselves rather than the government. Hence the dissidents (who object to the ads because–get this–they seek to differentiate their products from their competitors') are being forced not only to pay for the speech but to endorse it.