(Sept. 20) A group of prominent citrus growers filed a lawsuit Sept. 12 challenging the constitutionality of the box taxes they pay to fund the juice advertising activities of the Lakeland-based Florida Department of Citrus.
Following the lead of successful challenges to similar mandated advertising programs in the mushroom and beef industries, the growers claim the taxes they must pay amounts to compelled speech and is a violation of their rights to free speech and freedom of association under the First Amendment.
Freedom not to speak: “The United States Supreme Court has made clear that freedom of speech includes the freedom not to speak as well as the freedom to say what you want to rather than what the government mandates,” said Steve Gold, the lawyer representing the growers.
The growers are Evans Properties, Graves Bros. Co. and Fellsmere Joint Venture, all of the Indian River district; Southern Gardens in southwest Florida; and Latt Maxcy in central Florida. Together, the growers produce more than 19 million boxes of citrus a year, or about 7% of the state’s total.
The lawsuit was filed against the Citrus Department, the state’s comptroller and the state’s treasurer, in Leon County Circuit Court in Tallahassee, Gold said, noting that if the suit is successful and other growers file claims, total refunds the state would have to pay growers could exceed $100 million.
While the fresh side of Florida’s citrus industry isn’t directly implicated in the suit, repercussions for fresh fruit marketers clearly exist. The majority of the department’s $64 million annual budget is funded by box taxes paid by taxes on fruit sent to processors, so a successful suit could result in a dramatically altered Citrus Department.
Just how much the fresh citrus industry could be affected remains unclear. While the lion’s share of the department’s advertising budget goes toward its generic orange juice advertising campaign, fresh promotions generally fall in the area of public relations.
In a formal response to the lawsuit, the Citrus Department said it believes the complaint is “legally unfounded” and the refunds sought would have to come from the state’s general revenue fund, jeopardizing things like education and roads.
“The bottom line is this is a case filed by a few large growers who have long-term contracts with big processors and aren’t affected by the open market on a yearly basis,” the department said.