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Cowabungle Part II Pt.W.orth Chamber et a Commerce Having a cow at the Fort Worth Stock Exchange LEFT FIELD The Texas cattle raisers who sued Oprah Winfrey, her talk show, and show guest Howard Lyman in 1996 were back in court June 1, appealing their case to the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans. After watching Joseph F. Coyne, their fancy Los Angeles trial lawyer, tank the oral argument, Amarillo’s mad cattleman Paul Engler and his son Mike must have been even madder or at least, to judge by the tight smile on Mike Engler’s face, hoping that Coyne’s briefs are better than his speechifying. In Amarillo last January, the plaintiffs argued that they’d been wronged under the so-called “veggie libel law” the 1995 Texas False Disparagement of Perishable Food Products law as well as under older product defamation law \(see “Mad Cows and Cattlemen,” by Karen OlsMary Lou Robinson found that cattle didn’t count as “perishable food products” under the new law, and the jury found Winfrey and Lyman hadn’t violated the older laws. The plaintiffs appealed on four matters: one, that the case should not have been removed from state court to federal court for the original trial; two, that cattle are in fact perishable food; three, that Winfrey and Lyman knowingly made false statements, and four, that those statements were “of and concerning” the plaintiffs’ cattle. Apparently forgetting that they don’t have juries at the Fifth Circuit, Coyne began his argument by setting aside all these issues, declaring to the panel of three judges \(only two of whom were acments to discuss what this case is not about.” Coyne went on to do a little orating, asserting that the case was about “the millions of Americans who work all year to produce agricultural products whose markets can be destroyed by a panic,” but was not about “whether you can libel a cow” but was about the fact that “the constitutional protections we all enjoy do not protect false statements knowingly or falsely made,” and so on and so forth, until at last Judge Carl Stewart told him, “We know what the case is about, I assure you.” Coyne spent too much of his remaining time on the state-vs.-federal court issue \(given that the cattlemen already had a sixweek trial, the Fifth Circuit isn’t likely to cles when it came to whether the defendants knowingly made false statements \(first pinning the falsity on the show’s editing job, then on Lyman, then back on the cattle are or are not a perishable food item went practically untouched. Next to Coyne, Charles Babcock and Barry Peterson \(the lawyers for Winfrey Oprah has little to be cowed about in this case. The same day of the appeal, however, a New York Times front page story addressed the wider impact of veggie libel laws: while plaintiffs like the cattlemen haven’t been big winners, the public is already a loser when it comes to available information on food safety. The article cited several projects including a book that discussed bovine growth hormone, and a proposed Discovery Channel documentary on the history of food that have been scuttled or modified because of fears of getting sued. + Death Row’s Montel Williams Problem / f the national news media has found it a little bit harder to get access to Huntsville’,s Death Row in the last few months, they should thank Pat Robertson. That’s the gospel truth, according to Glen Castlebury, public information officer for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Recently, when the T.D.C.J. proposed new rules governing Death Row visitation, included was the following sentence: “‘News media’ does not include broadcast programs syndicated by independent producers, or television stations or networks devoted primarily to advocacy purposes or to a particular point of view.” Castlebury says that passage is a response to problems that occurred during the 1998 Karla Faye Tucker case: “During the Karla Faye Tucker deal, the department felt we got absolutely abused, and legitimate news media got abused, by such institutions as Christian News Network and the Montel Williams Show, and about 1,000 others like that.” convinced him “during a moment of weakness” that it was a legitimate news service, but the network’s personnel abused T.D.C.J. policies by demanding additional access and then used the Tucker interview material not for “real newscasts” but for fundraising. Meanwhile, the talk-show and magazine-style T.V. shows also wanted extensive access to death row prisoners, creating time conflicts with Texas newscasts. “I don’t want to stand around and listen to Montel Williams, or 20/20, Dateline, Nightline, or Hemline, or any of those other people, tell me they are news,” said Castlebury, “as I define news.” As written, the rules are strongly biased toward mainstream, large circulation news sources. Castlebury insists that these are the same rules which have long been in force under prison “administrative directives,” and that they are simply being formally codified See “Death Row,” page 7 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 5 JUNE 25, 1999