updated 5/23/2005 3:01:04 PM ET 2005-05-23T19:01:04

The Supreme Court on Monday ruled that the government was within its rights to force beef producers to pay for a multimillion-dollar "Beef: It's what's for dinner" marketing program, even when individual cattle producers disagreed with the campaign.

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The 6-3 decision is a defeat for farmers in several agricultural sectors who oppose paying mandatory fees for advertising they may later oppose. Currently, there are dozens of similar federal and state ad campaigns for products including milk, pork and cotton, many of which are being challenged on free speech grounds.

The beef campaign is a form of "government speech" immune to First Amendment challenge, the court said.

"The message set out in the beef promotions is from beginning to end the message established by the federal government," Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in an opinion joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist as well as Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Clarence Thomas and Stephen G. Breyer.

At issue was a 1985 law requiring producers to pay a $1-per-head fee on cattle sold in the United States. That fee, which generates more than $80 million per year, goes to an industry group appointed by the Agriculture Department to support advertising and research programs.

Justice David H. Souter, joined by Justices John Paul Stevens and Anthony Kennedy, said the campaign was not government speech. In a dissent, Souter said if the government seeks "to compel specific groups to fund speech with targeted taxes, it must make itself politically accountable for indicating that the content actually is a government message."

The government was sued by ranchers who sell cattle in South Dakota and Montana. They won an appeals court ruling that found the 20-year-old program violated the First Amendment.

The federal government and Nebraska cattlemen appealed to the high court, which has dealt before with questions about government authority to force farmers into joint programs.

In 1997, the court upheld advertising programs for California fruit. But in 2001, justices struck down a mandatory campaign for the mushroom industry.

The court had never decided, however, if such programs are government speech.

Many groups and 34 states supported the government. In California alone, 48 mandatory programs are used to promote produce like grapes and lettuce, and lower courts already have struck down the "Got Milk?" dairy promotion and advertisements calling pork "the other white meat."

The cases are Johanns v. Livestock Marketing Association, 03-1164, and Nebraska Cattlemen v. Livestock Marketing Association, 03-1165.

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