ABC Looks to Kill 'Pink Slime' Lawsuit, Saying It's a Threat to Free Speech

Diane Sawyer - broadcasts from Times Square on the death of Osama Bin Laden - 2011
Ida Mae Astute/ABC

ABC has asked a South Dakota federal judge to dismiss a $1.2 billion defamation lawsuit over its "pink slime" reporting.

The original lawsuit was filed in September by Beef Products Inc., a boneless-lean-beef giant, which sued the network as well as news anchor Diane Sawyer and several correspondents for its coverage of pink slime, the popular term employed to describe the use of fillers, trimmings and bacteria-killing ammonia in ground beef.

After ABC made noise about pink slime in a March 7 World News program, a consumer backlash rose against the use of it in supermarkets, restaurants and school lunches.

BPI alleged that "false and misleading and defamatory" statements were made by ABC reporters and USDA officials in the report, causing people to believe the product was unhealthy and unsafe. As a result of the backlash, the company says it had to close three plants and lay off 650 people. The $1.2 billion represented the damage that had allegedly been incurred upon the company.

But in a memorandum in a federal court on Wednesday, ABC claims its reporting was constitutionally protected.

"BPI complains that its product was disparaged by these reports, and it seeks to recover for the loss in the public's appetite for LFTB [lean finely textured beef]," write network lawyers. "The case thus poses a direct challenge to the right of ABC News to inform the public on a matter of obvious and legitimate public interest -- a right that is firmly embodied in the law of South Dakota and the First Amendment."

ABC argues that BPI's claims are insufficient to support its allegations that laws have been violated.

BPI had argued that ABC's reports violated South Dakota's Agricultural Food Products Disparagement Act, but ABC responds that the law only authorizes an action in the event the safety of a product is questioned. ABC says that safety wasn't the issue. The broadcasts, it says, "repeatedly stated that LFTB is safe to eat."

So far as libel laws go, ABC objects because the allegedly harmful and disparaging statements were intended toward a product rather than a person or entity.

According to the network's legal papers, "ABC News did not state or imply that BPI engaged in unlawful or fraudulent conduct in connection with the USDA's approval of LFTB, or in connection with how others label the ultimate ground beef products that are sold to consumers."

The network attempts to dismiss BPI's other causes of action including tortious interference, but overall, ABC wants a judge to throw out the lawsuit because of the consequences of letting it move forward.

"It is vitally important that they be addressed at the outset, because libel claims directly challenge free speech, and the mere pendency of these cases threatens to inhibit additional speech," says ABC, represented by the law firm of Williams & Connolly.

"BPI's complaint, which seeks $1.2 billion in damages, directly challenges the right of a national news organization, two USDA scientists, and a former BPI employee to explore matters of obvious public interest -- what is in the food we eat and how that food is labeled."

Here is ABC's memorandum: