Free-speech debate rises again in PETA's KFC lawsuit

LOS ANGELES: Furthering the legal debate begun by the Nike v. Kasky case on whether PR is protected free speech, PETA sued KFC last week over allegedly false statements on its website and in releases.

LOS ANGELES: Furthering the legal debate begun by the Nike v. Kasky case on whether PR is protected free speech, PETA sued KFC last week over allegedly false statements on its website and in releases.

At issue is how chickens purchased by KFC are raised and slaughtered. KFC, which buys more than 700 million chickens annually, requires suppliers to follow ethical guidelines, and has an agenda in place "to ensure that all birds are handled humanely and suffer no pain," according to past statements. PETA contends those statements are false and intended to mislead consumers.

"They are lying to the press and the public, and they are completely unrepentant about it," said PETA director of vegan outreach Bruce Friedrich.

The issue arose in January when PETA began a campaign against KFC to force the company to implement ethics guidelines, an effort similar to successful campaigns against other fast-food chains. KFC announced guidelines in May, but PETA charges that despite numerous statements saying it was compliant, KFC never fully implemented those points.

"It's not legal to deceive the press, the public, and your patrons about what you are doing," said Friedrich.

KFC contends that this lawsuit is simply another PETA tactic. "We stand by our information as truthful and accurate," read a recent release.

"This is just another one of their publicity stunts," added KFC director of PR Bonnie Warschauer. "Anything they've done has not affected our sales at all. When they are picketing, our sales go up."

Edelman's Chicago office is KFC's agency of 28 years, but Warschauer said that this issue is being handled internally with parent company Yum! Brands' public affairs department. She would not comment on strategy. Edelman confirmed that it was not currently working on this issue, although Kris Garvey, VP of the consumer practice, said the firm "may have something to add" later in the week.

While PETA is known for its headline-grabbing tactics, the lawsuit represents an approach that could add to the debate over what constitutes commercial speech, and what a corporation may say as free speech in a public debate. In Nike vs. Kasky, which the Supreme Court returned to lower courts for further rulings, the shoemaker is accused of defending its overseas labor practices with false information in a press release. Whether PETA's suit will prove as legally tenable as Kasky's remains to be seen, but it has gained mass media attention.

Numerous outlets have run articles highlighting PETA's claims that KFC spokesman Jason Alexander was fired for supporting PETA. Alexander confirmed he is no longer KFC's pitchman, but both he and KFC said the split was due to the ad campaign having run its course.

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