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Oprah: 'Free speech rocks'

Texas cattlemen lose defamation suit

Oprah leaving the court   
February 26, 1998
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...."
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"I never had any discussions.."
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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 the case.

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 encephalopathy.

Participants in the trial comment on the verdict
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But mad cow disease has never been found in the United States.

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. Constitution.

Here's a sampling of additional comments from Winfrey, Engler and others following the verdict:

Oprah Winfrey

  • "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 muzzled."
  • "(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 person."
  • "What (Engler) says about me or about talk shows doesn't have anything to do with my life."

Paul Engler

  • "Obviously, we're disappointed. At the same time, we do believe that we made one very strong point ... that U.S. beef is safe." icon 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." icon 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."

Howard Lyman

  • "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)."
Paul Engler

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 last summer.

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 million cattle.

Eight questions, one answer

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 last.

Correspondents Greg LaMotte and Patty Davis contributed to this report.

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