Food Freedom

School Mandates Milk Propaganda at Anti-Dairy Event

Uncowed, the protest organizer is suing.


A California high school student wanted to pass out literature critical of the dairy industry outside her school's cafeteria—but the school administration wouldn't let her, fearing that, unless she passed out pro-dairy flyers as well, the school would be found in violation of U.S. Department of Agriculture rules that bar anti-dairy speech on school grounds. The student has now filed a First Amendment lawsuit—challenging both the school's policy and the UDSA's pro-dairy regulations.

Marielle Williamson is a senior at Eagle Rock Junior/Senior High School in Los Angeles. Williamson is the president of the school's Animal Awareness Club, which seeks to raise awareness about the environmental and ethical consequences of animal product consumption. In February, Williamson sought permission from her school principal, Derek Steinorth, to pass out literature outside the school cafeteria on the environmental, ethical, and health implications of consuming dairy products.

According to the lawsuit, Steinorth gave a confusing response, telling her "You can have a table set up outside at lunch with her flyers on the pros and cons of drinking milk, but you should also have some literature for both sides of the debate," adding, "I don't think [these restrictions are] too unreasonable."

Obviously, being required to pass out material that would undermine her goals and beliefs concerned Williamson, who replied that if "sharing materials that promote dairy [is] required in order for [sic] to proceed with the event…we would not do the event."

She again emailed Steinorth to explain that "the point of this campaign is to counter industry-funded misinformation on dairy, and those flyers you provided fall into that category. Handing those out at the same time would defeat the purpose of our event." She asked for a final response as to whether the event could go forward as it was originally planned. Steinorth did not reply.

After several more follow-ups, Steinorth replied that he "was asked to make sure that those materials were available as well. I completely understand your point though." Williamson was unable to go forward with her event, fearing discipline if she were to pass out anti-dairy materials without also providing pro-dairy literature.

Like many public and private schools across the country, Eagle Rock participates in the USDA's National School Lunch Program (NSLP). Participating schools are subject to a litany of bizarre USDA regulations that mandate that officials "shall not directly or indirectly restrict the sale or marketing of fluid milk products by the school (or by a person approved by the school) at any time or any place (i) on the school premises; or (ii) at any school-sponsored event."

Not only are schools barred from displaying any material that could deter students from drinking cow's milk, but they also can't make water too enticing for students as an alternative drink with their meals. "While water must be made available," the rule reads, "schools must not directly or indirectly restrict the sale or marketing of fluid milk" and "are not to promote or offer water or any other beverage as an alternative selection to fluid milk throughout the food service area."

Further, students can only get dairy milk substitutes if they provide a written statement attesting to a disability that keeps them from drinking dairy milk. (It's worth noting that lactose intolerance is increasingly common, especially among Hispanic, black, and Asian populations.)

According to the lawsuit "The dairy industry monitors schools for alleged 'violations,'" of these "Milk Marketing Protections," and noncompliant schools can be subjected to fines. This, it seems, is what motivated Steinorth's concerns.

According to the suit, both the school's policy requiring that Williamson pass out pro-dairy literature and the USDA rules that seemed to motivate it, clearly violate Williamson's First Amendment rights to engage in nondisruptive political speech at school. Not only are the UDSA's regulations "unconstitutionally vague" and "objectively" chilling anti-dairy speech at schools, but also "by compelling Marielle to simultaneously distribute the dairy misinformation that she seeks to refute," the lawsuit argues, "District Defendants have violated Marielle's free speech rights."

Requiring students to pass out material that directly contradicts the purpose of their political speech—a practice the school district applies solely to the subject of dairy, not to other political topics—is clearly a violation of students' First Amendment rights. If Williamson succeeds in her lawsuit, she might not only strike down a bizarre school policy but the excessive government regulations that mandate schools to push dairy products on students.