A long legal battle centered over free-speech rights between a group of Valley grape growers and the state commission designated to help them advertise will be heard by the California Supreme Court. The growers, including Delano Farms Co., Gerawan Farming, Fourstar Fruit and Bidart Bros., contend that the Fresno-based California Table Grape Commission violates First Amendment rights by collecting mandated fees to pay for a range of services including advertising and marketing. The commission has prevailed in two lower courts.“We have nothing personal against the employees of the California Table Grape Commission, but we just don’t like a board of our competitors taking our money to determine how to advertise and promote our product because we are cutthroat in our industry,” said Clovis attorney Brian Leighton, who represents the plaintiffs.
PETITION FOR REVIEW WAS GRANTED BY THE CALIFORNIA SUPREME COURT ON JULY 22. THE PLAINTIFFS HAVE 30 DAYS TO SUBMIT A BRIEF. THE DEFENDANT THEN HAS 30 DAYS TO RESPOND.
In court documents, the growers have claimed that the “commission’s generic advertising violates their rights to free speech, free association, due process, liberty and privacy under the California Constitution.” The 5th District Court of Appeal in April upheld Fresno County Superior Court Judge Donald S. Black’s ruling in favor of the commission. The court ruled that the commission is a governmental entity, and therefore its speech can be funded by assessments collected from the growers. “Every court that has looked at the commission program for the last decade has reached the same conclusion — that it is lawful and constitutional,” said Tom Saunders, a Washington D.C.-based attorney for the commission. “We solely expect the California Supreme Court will come to the same conclusion.” The case has been in and out of court since 1996. Growers shell out millions of dollars in fees each year to help fund the commission, Leighton said.
“It’s so much money,” he said. “Our competitors determine where to spend the money and what type of promotion would happen. We know how to market our crop.” The table grape commission was created in 1967 by the Legislature to promote California table grapes and to fund research programs.
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