Flying Dog Brewery is adamant when it comes to issues like “freedom of expression” and not shy about addressing what it sees as censorship of its business practices or products. So when the ABC Commission of North Carolina denied the out-of-state brewery legal approval to sell a winter seasonal because it found the label art to be “inappropriate” Flying Dog decided to challenge that ruling in court.
The beer at issue is Flying Dog’s Freezin’ Season Winter Ale and its label features a sketch of a naked man drawn by Ralph Steadman, a famous graphic artist who spent decades collaborating with the legendary gonzo writer Hunter S. Thompson.
Steadman is responsible for the famous artwork that graced Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas book and he’s designed the majority of Flying Dog’s label art over the years. And while his artwork is whimsical and abstract wild, it’s a stretch to considerate it in bad taste, but the regulatory agency governing alcohol sales in North Carolina apparently does.
Flying Dog sent the label, along with several others, to the ABC Commission for approval on July 16, according the lawsuit. Shortly after that the brewery received an email from the commission rejecting it.
According to copies of the email exchange attached to court filings, the ABC board pointed to state regulations that bar advertisements or labels for alcoholic products deemed “undignified, immodest, or in bad taste.”
The label art, which lawyers for the brewery describe as “the silhouette of a cartoon figure standing next to a campfire,” and ABC emails highlighted a picture of the label with the words “bad taste.”
Flying Dog contends that the commission’s actions are unconstitutional and will likely cost it significant sales and “hard-won shelf placements” in North Carolina retailers.
“Seasonal beers rotate through liquor stores. If Flying Dog Brewery does not have a winter ale offering to follow its summer and fall seasonals, retailers will put another, non-Flying Dog Brewery beer in its place,” the brewery’s attorneys said in the lawsuit. “If that happens, it is likely that Flying Dog Brewery will not get that shelf space back for its subsequent seasonal offerings.”
Jim Caruso, CEO of Flying Dog, said the lawsuit is “about defending the First Amendment against petty bureaucrats who want to censor whatever they personally dislike.”
“Does anyone really want to live in a country where government bureaucrats can censor material based on whim and personal preference? Books? Music lyrics? Videos streamed in the privacy of your own home? News stories?” Caruso said in a statement to McClatchy News.