Vegetable Rights in Colorado

March 08, 1991|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston. If you are traveling through Colorado, watch what you say about the food. Cast no aspersions on the asparagus. Slander not the celery. Don't libel the lettuce.

The folks who live in the Rocky Mountain State have become unfriendly to the sort of people who might ruin the reputation of a rutabaga. They have a bill, about to face its last legislative hurdle, that would make it possible to take legal action against someone who knowingly and falsely trashed the turnips.

People could be sued, in the words of the bill, for disseminating ''any false information which is not based on reliable scientific facts and scientific data, which the disseminator knows or should have known to be false and which casts doubt on the safety of any perishable agricultural food product to the consuming public.''

The originator of this peachy new limit on free speech is Steve Acquafresca, an apple farmer and state legislator who has had it up to his Adam's apple with food-safety critics. Ever since the Alar scare left the McIntoshes to rot in 1989, many farmers have looked for a pesticide to feed the critics. Mr. Acquafresca says, deadpan, that his bill ''will provide encouragement for food-safety critics to look at legitimate safety information.''

What precisely is ''legitimate'' safety information these days? Health news in America bounces from one study to another. Coffee is in and then out and then in again. Oat bran is touted as a cure and then becomes a joke. Cholesterol is tagged as a villain and then it's divided into twins: good and bad.

Could you then be sued in Colorado for saying ''meat is bad for you'' or ''don't eat eggs'' or even ''chemicals can cause cancer?'' Mr. Acquafresca answers unequivocally: ''I don't know.''

As often happens when people start figuring out new ways to slice and dice free speech, this bill would muzzle alarms as well as alarmists. Yelling ''cancer'' in the middle of a harvest, says Mr. Acquafresca, ''is like yelling fire in a crowded theater.'' That's the classic argument about the limits of free speech.

The classic response is that this sort of bill will have a chilling effect. Chilling may be good for a head of lettuce, but not for the flow of information. If there's a match burning in the theater, would every critic or reporter have to call a lawyer to see when it's OK to yell ''fire?''

Heaven and the Great Pumpkin know, there isn't a real dearth of lawsuits in America. We don't need a law targeted at speech. And surely we don't need one that gives special rights to a new class of litigants: fruits and vegetables.

If a salad can sue because its safety has been questioned, how long till it can sue for alienation of affection? Somewhere I can imagine what the lawyer for a head of broccoli could do to the current head of state. So sue me, but with all due respect to the almond crop, the latest idea from Colorado is nuts.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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