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Appeals court upholds limitations on Montana beef checkoff

Lead counsel in case says ruling builds momentum for additional reform of beef checkoff system.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld a lower court ruling that the U.S. Department of Agriculture's beef checkoff program is being administered in a way that interferes with ranchers' First Amendment rights and that the government should be enjoined from collecting funds for the program without ranchers' consent.

"The Ninth Circuit's decision means that yet another set of federal judges has ruled that the government cannot compel independent ranchers to fund the speech of multinational corporations. This ruling may only apply to Montana, but the momentum towards reform of the entire beef checkoff system is clear," said David Muraskin, a food project attorney at Public Justice, the lead counsel in the constitutional challenge.

The plaintiff in the case is the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America (R-CALF USA), an independent rancher organization. R-CALF USA has argued against the checkoff because money collected is used for promotion of all beef and does not distinguish beef from Montana specifically or even from the U.S.

The national checkoff requires $1 per head sold to be sent to the Cattlemen’s Beef Board. Only by signing a form and tracking sales does the typically state-funneled 50 cents per head return to the Montana Beef Council board for it to invest, explained Chaley Harney, executive director of the Montana Beef Council.

In a typical year, $800,000 would stay in Montana, but so far, the state has received only $150,000 in checkoff dollars. In 2017, only 2,800 producers sought to return their funds to the Montana Beef Council.

Harney said the ruling limits the ability of the board -- made up of Montana ranchers -- to make decisions on any funding. “Their wings have been clipped. We have little to no beef promotion activity in Montana, as all those funds are being sent to the Cattlemen’s Beef Board,” she said.

The court wrote in its opinion that "the district court did not abuse its discretion by finding that the instant assessment likely violated R-CALF USA's First Amendment rights." The preliminary injunction upheld by the Ninth Circuit enjoins U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue from compelling Montana ranchers to subsidize the private speech of the Montana Beef Council without first obtaining affirmative consent from the rancher-payees.

"Today's ruling ensures that, for the first time in over three decades, independent Montana cattle producers have a choice as to whether to continue funding a private message that essentially says that beef is beef, regardless of where the cattle from which the beef was derived was born or raised. That generic message is contrary to the interests of Montana ranchers, who want to capitalize on the superior beef products that are produced from their high-quality, USA-produced cattle," R-CALF USA chief executive officer Bill Bullard said.

Before the appellate court in early March, Muraskin argued that the government needs to take more steps to control the Montana Beef Council if it wants to compel ranchers to fund its message. Unless the government actually appoints the council and reviews its activities, the First Amendment prevents ranchers from being forced to fund the private council's speech.

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