Forced speech

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Can growers and processors be compelled to finance generic commodity-advertising programs? Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court said no-but only in certain limited cases and not in others. It's a mushy outcome that allows one dissident mushroom grower to cease paying into the Mushroom Council's ad program while leaving no exit for unhappy members of other, far bigger agricultural-commodity programs-businesses that might prefer to spend their ad dollars in another manner.

The issue is a difficult one for agribusiness. Supporters of these programs argue passionately that it is only right that the majority rules, and that everyone be required to pay the cost of generic promotion because everyone benefits. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which sanctions these programs, and collects the money for them, has agreed, lending legal force to this "everybody in" approach.

Yet agribusiness has become big business and the views of the minority of growers and processors who object to financing generic promotion need to be respected. The Supreme Court's decision lets a grower/-processor exit a commodity program only if the primary activity of the program is to fund advertising. Most of the big programs do research, operate grading or other quality-standard programs, or serve other functions as well. For their participants, there is no exiting once the majority has spoken.

How a business spends its marketing dollars should ultimately be its own decision-not someone else's. If the courts say growers and processors have to support generic ad programs, not just a majority but an overwhelming majority of growers and processors should first be convinced they are getting real value for their ad dollar.

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