The Michigan Liquor Control Commission in 2009 banned Flying Dog Brewery's Raging Bitch Belgian-Style India Pale Ale from the state on grounds that the attention-grabbing label had language "deemed detrimental to the health, safety, or welfare of the general public."
But the commission this week reversed that ruling, citing a Supreme Court decision issued last week that favored commercial free speech rights over state regulations.
Flying Dog, a Maryland-based craft brewer, had sued in federal court claiming its First Amendment rights were violated. The brewer said the commission's reversal was a "victory for craft beer," but vowed to fight on in court, seeking to recover damages from lost sales while also hoping to strip the state's ability to "ban any beer that they find offensive."
"We're glad that the people of Michigan are now free to decide for themselves whether Flying Dog's beer labels are, like the beer, in good taste," the brewer's attorney, Alan Gura, said in a statement. "But the litigation won't end until the commissioners accept responsibility for the damage they've caused by violating the First Amendment."
Flying Dog began selling the beer in several states in 2009 in recognition of its 20th anniversary. The alcohol content in Raging Bitch is 8.3% -- which is about twice the amount of an average mainstream light beer. The label depicts a crazed dog and says: "Remember, enjoying a RAGING BITCH, unleashed, untamed, unbridled -- and in heat -- is pure GONZO." The label apparently worked. The brewery, which now sells the Bitch in 32 states, says the IPA is its top seller.
Michigan will become the 33rd state to let the Bitch in, thanks in part to the Supreme Court, which wrapped up its term this week with multiple rulings denouncing government regulation of commercial speech, including striking down a California law that barred the sale of violent video games to children.
The case cited by the Michigan liquor commission had nothing to do with alcohol, but rather a Vermont law that limited the ability of companies to collect information about what drugs doctors are prescribing, a practice that could help drug makers target sales to doctors. "Vermont did this, it explained, to protect doctors from intrusive marketing, which could drive up health-care costs if doctors prescribe more expensive brand-name drugs," as explained in a post on scotusblog.com. The companies said the law restricted their free speech and a majority of the court agreed.
Opponents said the court overreached. "The Supreme Court has overturned a sensible Vermont law that sought to protect the privacy of the doctor-patient relationship," Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said in a statement. "This divided ruling is a win for data miners and large corporations," "he said, calling it "another example of this Court using the First Amendment as a tool to bolster the rights of big business at the expense of individual Americans."