SPOKANE - A federal judge threw out a $250 million lawsuit filed by Washington state apple growers against CBS, ruling they failed to prove a "60 Minutes" report linking the chemical Alar to cancer was false.
The growers contended the 1989 broadcast triggered a nationwide consumer panic and cost them losses that Washington State University trade experts estimated at $130 million.
Alar was used to control growth and improve the fruit's appearance. After the "60 Minutes" report, the manufacturer, Uniroyal Chemical Inc., withdrew it from the market. The government later banned all food uses of Alar.
U.S. District Judge Fremming Nielsen yesterday granted a pretrial request by CBS to dismiss the lawsuit.
First Amendment law requires plaintiffs bringing such lawsuits in matters of public interest to prove the statements at issue were false. Nielsen said the growers failed to do so.
In addition, he noted the Supreme Court in 1974 ruled that the First Amendment "requires that we protect some falsehood in order to protect speech that matters."
"Even if CBS' statements are false, they were about an issue that mattered, cannot be proven as false and therefore must be protected," Nielsen wrote.
Nielsen also said CBS was protected because it relied partly on Environmental Protection Agency studies on Alar.
"A news reporting service is not a scientific testing lab, and these services should be able to rely on a scientific government report when they are relaying the report's results," the judge wrote.