A federal court has rejected a First Amendment challenge to the operation of 15 state beef checkoff boards, ruling that promotions funded with checkoff money are government speech, not private speech.

R-CALF USA, the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund United Stockgrowers of America, had sued the department, claiming that it was unconstitutional to require cattlemen to fund council promotions contrary to the views of its members. The lawsuit originated over frustrations about the Montana Beef Council partially funding advertising promoting North American beef; R-CALF is known in the beef industry for its staunch support of country-of-origin labeling.

But agreements reached between USDA and state beef councils after the lawsuit was filed give USDA “broad new authority over any potential speech that the beef councils might produce,” according to the order issued by Brian Morris, Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court in Montana.

“USDA retains significant discretion to approve or reject” the speech of Qualified State Beef Councils, Morris said, adopting the Jan. 29 report and recommendations of a magistrate judge.

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association applauded the ruling, with CEO Colin Woodall saying “the foundation of the Beef Checkoff has always been state beef councils that collect checkoff funds and determine how those investments are used for research, marketing and promotion efforts in individual states. Those efforts are directed by the same cattlemen and cattlewomen who pay the checkoff, so this victory goes a long way toward ensuring they continue to direct those investments.”

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