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Oprah Says Free Speech Prevails in Win over Texas Beef Industry

By Sue Anne Lyons
The Washington Post

After nearly six weeks, more than two dozen witnesses, untold legal fees and long arguments about agricultural economics and freedom of speech, the case of the Texas cattlemen against talk show host Oprah Winfrey was resolved Thursday: Oprah won.

The jury of eight women and four men decided that Winfrey, her Harpo Productions Inc. and Howard Lyman, a guest on her show, did not hurt four Amarillo ranching families and their cattle companies with an April 16, 1996, show on mad cow disease. The plaintiffs claimed that comments made during the program, including Winfrey's disgusted vow that she would never eat another hamburger, caused cattle prices to plummet, costing them about $11 million.

"My reaction is that free speech not only lives, it rocks!" Winfrey said, pumping her fist in the air as she emerged from the federal courthouse here, surrounded by lawyers and bodyguards.

Lead plaintiff Paul Engler vowed to appeal the verdict. "From the word get-go, there was never anything frivolous about this suit," he said.

"We believe we made one point, very strongly and very emphatically to everyone - that U.S. beef is safe," he said, referring to testimony that there has not been a documented case of mad cow disease in the United States.

The "Oprah Winfrey Show" episode in question, a segment on "Dangerous Foods," was aired after news outlets reported that at least 10 people in Britain died of the brain-wasting ailment, which they contracted from eating beef contaminated when cattle were fed protein supplements produced from the wastes of slaughtered cattle.

The show never touched specifically on Texas cattle or named the plaintiffs, but they argued that Winfrey's influence was so great that they suffered devastating financial losses simply as a result of the program's airing.