Legal Briefs

Delano Farms Co. v. California Table Grapes Commission

Neither the government nor a private party may compel you to speak; nor may a private party masquerading as a government entity compel you to speak, even when it’s supposedly for your own good. In Delano Farms v. California Table Grape Commission, Cato, joined by the Reason Foundation, Institute for Justice, and DKT Liberty Project, is continuing to support a farm business’s challenge to a California state-established commission that compels grape growers to contribute money for government-sponsored advertisements. We had previously filed in the California Supreme Court, which was a losing battle, and are now asking the U.S. Supreme Court to take the case.

Now, governments are allowed to disseminate their own messages, and can use tax revenue to do it, under what’s called, simply enough, the “government-speech doctrine.” They can also tax industries specifically and ear-mark those funds to promote those particular industries; the Supreme Court has upheld several industry-advertising programs, including national campaigns for beef. In many of these targeted tax-and-advertise programs, the government requires taxes or “fees” from anyone doing business in the industry. One justification for these fees is that all producers benefit from such a “group advertisement.” If some were able to get the marketing benefit without paying, the system would suffer from “free riders.” For such a program to actually constitute government speech and thus avoid First Amendment problems, however, it is the government itself that must be speaking.

The California Table Grapes Commission has claimed that it is part of the government and that its speech is thus “government speech.” But the commission isn’t the government; it’s a commercial entity or trade group that uses compelled subsidies to fund speech. The commission’s generic advertisements for California grapes don’t really benefit the entire industry. Instead, they benefit some members of the industry by making it seem that all products are equally good. Furthermore, the commission can’t be considered the government because it, unlike the actual government, can be disbanded based on a vote of the table grape producers.

Put another way, no person employed by the California government has ever written, produced, or even reviewed the speech the commission compels. In all other cases where the government programs were held constitutional, the government took direct control of the message and maintained oversight of a regulatory entity. None of that is true here. The commission here is a private entity, with the power to exact fees from members who have no choice but to pay for whatever message it ends up promoting.

The Supreme Court should take this case and treat forced subsidies for generic advertising the same way it treats other such subsidies: as violations of the First Amendment freedoms of speech and association. The California courts relied on a decision recently overturned in the Supreme Court’s Janus holding this past June, in which compelled association and speech in union representation was deemed a violation of the First Amendment. The Court should continue with this line of reasoning here: no one should be compelled to support a non-government message.

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