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 in the state 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 the beer’s 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 did.
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 the words “bad taste” were highlighted above a picture of the label cropped to show the cartoon silhouette, the emails show.
So Flying Dog Brewery decided to challenge that ruling in court.
And on May 13, the US District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina ruled in favor of Flying Dog Brewery, and against the North Carolina Alcoholic Beverage Commission, in Flying Dog’s lawsuit claiming that the NC ABC’s regulation allowing it to ban labels that the commissioners in their sole discretion feel are “undignified, immodest, or in bad taste” is a violation of the First Amendment.
“The First Amendment is the last defense against authoritarian and arbitrary government, and it must be protected against any and all threats,” said Jim Caruso, CEO of Flying Dog Brewery… With the First Amendment seemingly under attack from all sides, it is heartening to see court decisions like this that protect the freedoms that it embodies.”
Flying Dog has a long history of standing up against censorship.
When the Colorado and then Michigan liquor commissions violated Flying Dog’s First Amendment rights, Flying Dog sued and won both cases. While on the surface these lawsuits are about beer labels, they are really about defending the First Amendment at the margin, where virtually all battles of this nature are taking place. Civil liberties are not lost overnight, they are chipped away at bit by bit unless vigorously defended.
“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 added in a statement to McClatchy News.
(All image credits Flying Dog Brewer)