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Oklahoma Tries to Take a Bite Out of the First Amendment

As anyone who’s seen a Cheerios box or Coca-Cola bottle knows, a product’s name is often the biggest thing on it. Other words on product labels are usually much smaller, except for large warnings required to highlight dangers, like on cigarette labels.

But this year, at the meat lobby’s request, Oklahoma will start treating safe and healthy vegan food as if it were cigarettes. Oklahoma’s new law forces plant-based food businesses to overhaul their labels with disclaimers as big as their product names.

This new law is also a new tactic in the meat lobby’s playbook. In 2019, IJ successfully challenged a Mississippi law that banned vegan food manufacturers from using terms like “veggie burger.” Recognizing that outright bans like these are likely to keep losing, the meat lobby changed tactics, pressing instead for outrageous requirements for its competitors.

Oklahoma’s new labeling requirement would have a devastating effect on companies like Upton’s Naturals, a Chicago-based manufacturer of vegan foods that IJ also represented in Mississippi. Upton’s Naturals markets its foods to consumers around the nation who are specifically looking for alternatives to meat. Unsurprisingly, Upton’s Naturals’ labels proudly state that its foods are “100% Vegan.” But under Oklahoma’s new law, clear labels with plain language like this become illegal in favor of government-approved mandatory disclaimers.

This law is unconstitutional. Under the First Amendment, advertising that isn’t false or inherently misleading enjoys substantial constitutional protection. Laws restricting this type of speech—and compelling other speech—will be upheld only if the government can show that the laws address a real problem and burden no more speech than necessary.

Oklahoma’s law has nothing to do with protecting consumers and everything to do with protecting the meat industry from honest competition. No reasonable consumer who buys Upton’s Naturals’ foods thinks he is buying animal meat. That is why Upton’s Naturals teamed up with IJ to file a federal lawsuit challenging Oklahoma’s unconstitutional compelled disclaimer requirement.

This case is just the latest in IJ’s three-decade history of protecting people’s right to speak truthfully to consumers. And with the support of readers like you—carnivore, herbivore, and omnivore alike—we will stop the Sooner State from taking a bite out of the First Amendment.

Justin Pearson is managing attorney of IJ’s Florida office.

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