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Flying Dog sues state Liquor Control Commission over free speech

Not sold in Michigan. The label on Flying Dog's 20th Anniversary beer. Artwork by Ralph Steadman
Not sold in Michigan. The label on Flying Dog's 20th Anniversary beer. Artwork by Ralph Steadman

Flying Dog Brewery, a Maryland-based beer maker, is suing Michigan's Liquor Control Commission for violating its free speech rights.

The Brewery applied for a license to sell its 20th anniversary commemorative beer "Raging Bitch" in 2009. The beer's label included the following text:

Two inflammatory words... one wild drink. Nectar imprisoned in a bottle. Let it out. It is cruel to keep a wild animal locked up. Uncap it. Release it....stand back!! Wallow in its golden glow in a glass beneath a white foaming head. Remember, enjoying a RAGING BITCH, unleashed, untamed, unbridled- and in heat- is pure GONZO!! It has taken 20 years to get from there to here. Enjoy!

According to Business Wire, the Michigan Liquor Commission barred the sale of the beer claiming the "beer's label — designed by renowned British artist Ralph Steadman — is 'detrimental to the public health, safety and welfare.'"

Michigan is the only state, of the more than 40 states where the beer is sold, to ban it.

Flying Dog Brewery CEO Jim Caruso said the Commission was taking issue with the beer's name in combination with the language of the text on the label.

Flying Dog attorney, Alan Gura said:

"Regrettably, the Michigan Liquor Control Commission and its members have taken it upon themselves to control not merely alcoholic beverages, but speech as well. The defendants arbitrarily imposed their personal tastes in banning Raging Bitch, clearly violating Flying Dog’s First Amendment right to free expression."

Flying Dog appealed the Liquor Commission's decision, but it was later affirmed, according to the Grand Rapids Press:

The commission affirmed its decision with commissioner Patrick Gagliardi offering that the board is not adverse to edgy writing but that “we do have a responsibility here to place product in a public place with the names that are on it, and that's what we take very seriously,” according to the suit. Gagliardi was referring to Steadman's partial label inscription of “Remember, enjoying a Raging Bitch, unleashed, untamed, unbridled – and in heat- is pure GONZO.”

Flying Dog Brewery has ties to former "Gonzo" journalist Hunter S. Thompson.

One of the Brewery's founders, George Stranahan, was a friend of Thompson's, and according to their website, "when picking an artist to do Flying Dog's labels George tapped longtime friend Hunter S. Thompson to get an artist that reflects the Flying Dog condition - Ralph Steadman."

According to Business Wire, when artist Ralph Steadman was informed of the Michigan Liquor Control Commission’s apparent distaste for his art, Steadman said:

"Freedom of speech and artistic expression is as fundamental to our being as the alphabet itself. I thought censorship went out with D.H. Lawrence’s ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ about 50 years ago! So if you are feeling a strong itch to drink Raging Bitch, just do it and get on with life."

Flying Dog CEO Jim Caruso said "the loss of the right to free speech and free expression does not occur overnight, it comes in little decisions like this one."

Sharon Martin, the director of licensing for the Liquor Control Commission told us they haven't seen the lawsuit yet, so they can't comment on it.

Martin said, after the appeal was decided last July (July 7th, 2010), Flying Dog Brewery had exhausted the available due process with the Liquor Control Commission.

Mark Brush was the station's Digital Media Director. He succumbed to a year-long battle with glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer, in March 2018. He was 49 years old.
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