Student Sues School District for Free Speech Violation for Silencing Her Criticism of Cow’s Milk
On heels of lawsuit, federal legislation is being introduced to remove barriers to access nondairy milks at school
LOS ANGELES — In a first lawsuit of its kind, a Los Angeles high school student is suing her school district and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for violating her First Amendment right to share information at school about alternatives to cow’s milk and health concerns about dairy consumption. Today, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a nonprofit medical ethics and public health advocacy organization with more than 17,000 doctor members, filed a free speech lawsuit on Marielle Williamson’s behalf with the U.S. Federal Court for the Central District of California in Los Angeles.
Williamson, a senior at Eagle Rock High School, was told by her school that she could not share information about plant-based milk or critical of the dairy industry in the school cafeteria unless she provided pro-dairy content as well.
“Our school is riddled with pro-dairy posters and promotions,” Williamson said. “The fact that a differing perspective from a student was shut down goes to show that the USDA is more focused on milk sales than the well-being of students. This lawsuit was the only way to make people aware of how wrong this is.”
In its lawsuit, the Physicians Committee alleges that the school district unconstitutionally discriminated on the basis of viewpoint by prohibiting Williamson from distributing information highlighting dairy’s negative impacts, while school sanctioned dairy promotions—such as “Got Milk?” ads in the morning announcements—pervade Williamson’s school. The government may not prohibit student speech simply based on its viewpoint.
By law, “fluid milk,” or cow’s milk, must be offered at every school lunch and breakfast served under the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program.
Williamson is also concerned about her many classmates who can’t drink cow’s milk. Many people cannot digest lactose, including approximately 95% of Asian Americans, 60% to 80% of African Americans, 80% to 100% of American Indians, and 50% to 80% of Hispanics. About 75% of the Los Angeles Unified School District student population is Hispanic. Not providing appropriate beverages for these students sends the message that their school’s food programs are not meant for them.
Next week, U.S. Reps. Nydia Velázquez (D-NY) and Jamal Bowman (D-NY) will reintroduce the Healthy Future Students and Earth Act, which would ensure that schools are better accommodating students who are unable to process lactose or who otherwise cannot consume dairy. The legislation would authorize school districts to provide a nondairy fluid milk alternative (consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans) to any student as part of a reimbursable meal without a note and would require school districts to provide a nondairy milk substitute if a parent or guardian makes a written request.
“Students don’t need to consume dairy milk since there are so many other foods and beverages that can provide the calcium, protein, vitamins and minerals that are needed for growth and energy,” says Los Angeles cardiologist Heather Shenkman, MD, a member of Physicians Committee.
The lawsuit argues that a federal law mandating that any “school that participates in the school lunch program . . . shall not directly or indirectly restrict the sale or marketing of fluid milk products by the school (or by a person approved by the school) at any time or any place” unconstitutionally restricts the free speech of students. The USDA interprets that language to mean that cafeteria displays, printed material, and layout may not promote beverages other than dairy milk in a way that may detract from dairy milk sales. Even water may not be offered on the lunch line in a way that might interfere with a student taking milk.
“The dairy industry has a stranglehold on our students and our school meal programs,” said Deborah Press, associate general counsel at the Physicians Committee. “The USDA is so protective of the dairy industry that its policies outlaw even the smallest amount of opposition to the deluge of pro-milk messaging in schools. It will do anything it can — even gag student speech — to continue foisting unwanted, unhealthy, and culturally inappropriate foods on young people.”
Marielle and the Physicians Committee partnered through her experience as a student advocate in the Factory Farming Awareness Coalition’s Advocacy Institute.
Founded in 1985, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine is a nonprofit organization that promotes preventive medicine, conducts clinical research, and encourages higher standards for ethics and effectiveness in education and research.