On 2 May 2016, R-CALF filed a lawsuit against the national Beef Checkoff program. The lawsuit claimed that it was unconstitutional of the government to allow private beef councils, like the Montana State Beef Council, to keep and spend one-half of the checkoff dollars, with the money going towards funding the beef council’s private speech, which did not have the support of R-CALF’s members.
In particular, the organisation argued that it was unconstitutional for the government to inflict upon its members funding the private speech of state beef councils.
“The private speech our members disagree with is the beef council’s message that foreign beef is the same as, and is just as good as, beef produced exclusively from cattle born, raised, and slaughtered in the United States of America,” a statement from R-CALF read.
On 25 October, a hearing was held before a magistrate judge, whose role it was to review pleadings, conduct a hearing and recommend to the federal district court how the case ought to be decided.
Subsequently, on 12 December, the magistrate issued his findings and recommendations in R-CALF’s case. “The magistrate judge recommends that the US District Court for the District of Montana grant our request for a preliminary injunction,” said R-CALF.
“The preliminary injunction would stop the government from continuing to allow the Montana State Beef Council to use checkoff dollars to fund its advertising campaigns unless a cattle producer provides prior affirmative consent that his/her checkoff dollars may be retained by the council for that purpose.
“This is exactly what we asked for and so we have won the first round.”
However, as this is only a magistrate’s recommendation and not a US District Court order, it is only an initial ruling in the group’s case.
It is now up to the US District Court to conduct an independent review of the magistrate’s findings and recommendations. As part of the review, the government has 14 days to object or to request an appeal of the judge’s findings and recommendations.
After this independent review, if the US District Court decides to grant R-CALF a preliminary injunction, the government must then stop allowing the Montana Beef Council to collect and spend producer checkoff dollars, protecting the wishes of the members of R-CALF. This can be vetoed should the council first acquire permission from each cattle producer to keep and use the funds.
“The most prominent issue to be decided as our case proceeds beyond the preliminary injunction stage is whether the Secretary of Agriculture exerts enough control over the state beef councils to qualify their speech as ‘government speech’.”
R-CALF believe that, regarding the magistrate judge’s findings and recommendations, it is unlikely that the state beef council’s speech would qualify as government speech.
“This is an important, first victory in our case.”