Anyone out there who likes beer and free speech may want to pick up a sixpack of Flying Dog Brewery's many different beers, and Anheuser-Busch might want to take note as this smaller brewery may have just out-MURICA!-ed their outrageously patriotic beer can labels. This little brewery defended the 1st amendment, and won!
When their IPA “Raging Bitch” was released in 2009, the Michigan Liquor Control Commission promptly banned it from being sold in the state, deeming the beer “detrimental to the health, safety and welfare of the general public.” Because it had a screaming dog and the word "bitch" on the label. The kind of provocative tounge-in-cheek branding that will spur a Slate writer to lament about “craft beer and sexism.”
Flying Dog saw the arbitrary censoring of their beer as a fundamental freedom of speech issue, and sued the State of Michigan and the individual members of the commission on the grounds of violating their right to freedom of speech. A six-year legal battle later, Flying Dog finally won when the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled in favour of the beer company.
They've been awarded a little over $40,000 in damages, not much in the grand scheme of things and not much compared to the cost of litigation. With that money the brewery has created the “1st Amendment Society” , a nonprofit organization whose goals include advocating for free speech, educating the public on the First Amendment and fighting censorship.
The group's executive director, Erin Weston, elaborated to the Baltimore Sun : “Civil liberties are incredibly important to us. We pursued this case against the state of Michigan based primarily on principle over anything else.”
In fact, the commission reversed its initial decision in April 2011 and approved Flying Dog’s label. The company, however, continued to fight in court in order to set a precedent, Weston said.
“We were like, ‘OK, thanks, but that’s actually not the point,’” Weston said of the 2011 decision. “The point is we wanted somebody to make the call that these five commissioners and their arbitrary decision was unconstitutional.”
Flying Dog CEO Jim Caruso said: “It’s taken a few years, but now appointed bureaucrats are accountable for imposing their personal agendas and prejudices on the public, and for committing the crime of violating Flying Dog’s right to freedom of speech.”
Flying Dog's attorney, Alan Gura, added: “In 21st Century America, officials cannot ban words, artwork and poetry they dislike. Illegal censorship causes real harm, and Michigan’s liquor commissioners will now be made to pay real money for the damage they’ve done.”
The new freedom of speech organization will officially launch May 31 in Washington, with an event at the National Press Club. Flying Dog Brewery targeted that week because it coincides with SAVOR: a weeklong craft beer-and-food event in D.C. (Tickets here if you are in the hood)
“Because this case sets a precedent on alcohol in general, we wanted to hold the launch during this week to get as many people in the industry at the event and aware of what was going on,” Weston said. The end goal for the society is the grow large enough to stand on its own. Weston adds: “I think what we’ll see is it will go beyond just events here at Flying Dog and featuring Flying Dog beer.”
In defending their artwork and cheeky words that appear on the labels - the poetry and illustrations are created by artist Ralph Steadman - Flying Dog is now synonymous with the most American of all amendments, with nary a US flag in sight.