In April 2017, the Brewers Association (BA), a trade group that serves the craft beer industry, enacted a set of rules designed to stem the use of sexist and offensive brewery and beer names (see Brewers Association standing up to breweries, beers with offensive names, labels). But, Flying Dog Brewery sees the move by the BA as an overt attempt at censorship. And, to protest the move, Flying Dog CEO Jim Caruso has severed ties with the industry group.
In a letter dated July 14, 2017 and addressed to BA CEO Bob Pease, Caruso says that the policy, “… is an attempt by the BA to censor beer names that offend the sensibilities of some at the BA, primarily by trying to intimidate breweries into censoring themselves.”
In the BA’s policy, a procedure is laid out on how brewers can police their peers — Caruso reads this as competitors — by lodging a formal complaint. Should the offending brewery cease advertising or using a name that is considered offensive by the reporting brewery within 30 days of the complaint, the matter is considered closed. But, if the name and/or advertising is not ceased, a sort of tribunal is convened. The final decision of the tribunal — in reality a group of three BA appointed representatives — is published on the BA’s website for all the world to read. In addition, names found to be offensive will be banned from being spoken at BA sanctioned events like the Great American Beer Festival, Savour and more. If a brewery or beer with a name deemed offensive happens to win a medal in a competition at one of these events, they will not be publicly identified. Winners are also banned from using Brewers Association intellectual property such as identifying a banned beer name as a medal winner in a BA sanctioned event.
Caruso sees all this as forms of censorship, thought policing and just plain creepy.
No stranger to the fight to end censorship, Caruso fought the the Michigan Liquor Control Commission in 2009 for similar reasons. In the landmark case, Caruso alleged that the commissioners could not legally reject a label just because they didn’t like it. It took six year of battle in federal courts, but ultimately Flying Dog won the suit and set a federal precedent that freedom of speech applies to beer, wine and spirits labels as well as individuals.
In the six-page letter to Pease, Caruso goes on to explain why he so strongly opposes the BA’s stance on so called offensive name sand labels. He brings to the forefront the specters of McCarthyism, communism, Leninism, Marxism, Stalinism and socialism. He holds the example of Lenny Bruce’s persecution that drove him to suicide for doing nothing more than telling jokes using vulgar language during midnight shows attended only by paying adults.
“The insurmountable problem with what the BA is attempting to do,” Caruso says. “Is that the term “offensive” is not definable in any objective way or with any precision. Offensive to whom? Everyone finds something offensive.”
Caruso goes on to point out that in numerous cases, the Supreme Court of the United States has agreed that “offensive” is undefinable. Why then, he asks, does the BA think that it can be the champion of consumers by regulating via policy what some may deem offensive. Government regulation and approval, he argues, is sufficient.
“Consumers,” elaborates Caruso. “Vote with their hard-earned dollars billions of times every day. It’s called a free market. The BA believes consumers need a nanny.”
For its part, Pease simply says to Caruso, “Not all members agree with every policy” and that “we’ll just have to agree to disagree.”
In addition, an article on beer news site Brewbound.com, Pease is quoted as saying he is “disappointed” in Flying Dog’s decision to withdraw from the organization. However, he defended the policy changes as “reasonable” and “responsible.”
“The BA and its members absolutely support the First Amendment,” he wrote in an email to BrewBound. “Invoking the First Amendment in this instance is misplaced and inaccurate. The Brewers Association has no intention nor ability to censor any market initiatives by any brewing industry member.”
“To us,” Caruso explains in his letter. “The BA’s anti-free expression stance is offensive, and we are exercising our freedom to choose by rejecting the BA.”
Consumers have the power to decide whether they side with the BA or with Flying Dog. Caruso is a proponent of this dynamic and prefers the power of the free market to what he sees as tyrannical suppression of expression and overly political correctness.
“Sometimes,” he concludes. “It is a matter of principle.
“This is one of those times.”
Read the entire letter to the BA from Jim Caruso here.