Oprah: 'Free speech rocks'
Texas cattlemen lose defamation suit
February 26, 1998
Oprah leaving the court
Web posted at: 3:07 p.m. EST (2007 GMT)
In this story:
AMARILLO, Texas (CNN) -- "Free speech not only lives, it
rocks," a beaming Oprah Winfrey said Thursday after jurors
rejected a multimillion-dollar defamation lawsuit by Texas
cattlemen. The Amarillo, Texas, jury decided the television
talk show host did not maliciously harm the U.S. beef
industry in a 1996 program on mad cow disease.
Plaintiffs who say the show caused a cattle market plunge
that caused them to lose $11 million said they planned to
appeal, and were pleased if the trial caused television talk
shows to become more "responsible."
It was not immediately clear on what grounds an appeal would
be filed by the plaintiffs -- three cattle-feeding operations
and four ranches.
Winfrey put her hands over her face and appeared to weep
after the verdict was read in U.S. District Court. Then she
hugged and shook hands with her attorneys.
"Oprah, Oprah," fans cheered as Winfrey left the courthouse
with both arms raised in triumph.
Plaintiffs led by cattleman Paul Engler sued Winfrey, her
production company and Howard Lyman, a vegetarian activist
guest who warned of a possible outbreak of mad cow disease in
the United States.
|Oprah reacts to the verdict
|"My reaction is...."|
298K/25 sec. AIFF or WAV sound
|"I never had any discussions.."|
298K/25 sec. AIFF or WAV sound
On a show broadcast on April 16, 1996, Winfrey told her
studio audience and television viewers that Lyman's comments
"just stopped me cold from eating another burger."
"I'm still off hamburgers," she said Thursday after winning
Mad cow disease has ravaged cattle in Britain in recent
years. The contaminated beef is suspected of causing at
least 23 people to die in that country from the human version
of the brain-destroying disease, bovine spongiform
But mad cow disease has never been found in the United
Juror Fred Dunaway told reporters that he and the jurors
"reflected on the First Amendment pretty heavily," a
reference to the freedom of speech guaranteed by the U.S.
Here's a sampling of additional comments from Winfrey, Engler
and others following the verdict:
- "I will continue to use my voice. I believed from the
beginning that (the lawsuit) was an attempt to muzzle my
voice, and I come from a people who have struggled and died
in order to have a voice in this country. And I refused to be
- "(The lawsuit) will not change the way I operate. It has
made me even more fervent in my desire and intention to bring
information and enlightenment and encourage people in ways
that I see fit."
- "From the beginning, we believed that we did nothing wrong
with this show and I stand by the show."
- "There were times in the courtroom I that wanted to thank
(Engler) because what he has done is made me a stronger
- "What (Engler) says about me or about talk shows doesn't
have anything to do with my life."
- "Obviously, we're disappointed. At the same time, we do
believe that we made one very strong point ... that U.S. beef
is safe." 170K/15 sec. AIFF or WAV sound
- "It's very difficult to fight a celebrity."
- The legal fight was still worthwhile, "if we can instill
additional responsibility, if there ever was any, on the part
of talk show hosts ... to carefully screen their guests to
see whether they are qualified in what they say." 255K/20 sec. AIFF or WAV sound
Joe Coyne, Engler's attorney
- "You'd have to be blind to think (jurors) weren't
influenced by one of the 25 most influential Americans.
That's a star quality that's really tough to get over." He
was referring to a 1996 Time magazine article ranking
Winfrey in the top 25.
- On whether he thinks the lawsuit will cause Winfrey to do
her show any differently: "Yes. Before she puts people on the
air, not knowing what they are going to say ... they'll check
and do their homework."
- "There was nothing frivolous about this lawsuit. ... There
were serious issues raised and we're glad that the country
now knows that American beef is safe."
- "Coming in the heart of cattle country and winning this
shows that the American way is alive and well."
- "(U.S. beef) is a lot safer today than it was on the 16th
of April (1996)."
The former rancher, now with the Humane
Society of the United States, was referring to a ban on
feeding ground-up cattle parts to cattle, a practice banned
Scientists have said feeding
contaminated animal parts to cattle likely helped spread mad
cow disease in Britain, where it forced the slaughter of 1.5
The jury's verdict came on the second day of deliberations
after five weeks of testimony.
There were eight questions to consider, but the outcome
actually hinged on only one: Did any of the defendants
falsely defame the cattlemen? Jurors decided the answer was
no, making the other seven questions moot.
The end of the trial also means the end of the five-week run
of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" in Amarillo. Winfrey has taped
her program in the Texas panhandle city since January 22.
Thursday night's scheduled taping of two shows were to be the
Correspondents Greg LaMotte and Patty Davis contributed to this report.