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California’s “Happy Cows” ads might be fairly cheesy, but that doesn’t mean the state can be sued over them. On Tuesday, San Francisco’s 1st District Court of Appeal declared the California Milk Producers Advisory Board exempt from the state’s false advertising laws, preventing People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals Inc. from suing the agency over its popular campaign showing blissful bovines in a pastoral paradise. PETA, based in Norfolk, Va., had claimed that the ads were “explicitly and implicitly untrue, deceptive and misleading” — that California cows actually lead harsh lives in grubby fields before being slaughtered. In their ruling, the appellate justices made no comment about the state of cattle contentment but simply held that a “plain reading” of the state’s unfair competition law — Business & Professions Code �17200 — shows that public entities, such as the milk board, aren’t subject to false advertising suits. “Section 17201 does not include any references to governmental agencies or political entities,” Justice Ignazio Ruvolo wrote. “Had the Legislature wished to include governmental entities, such as the CMAB, in its definition of ‘person[s]‘ subject to UCL liability, it would have done so.” The ruling, in which Justices J. Anthony Kline and Paul Haerle concurred, made no finding about the ads’ truthfulness. PETA had asked the courts to block the ads, which portray dairy cows enjoying life under sunny skies in green pastures surrounded by white picket fences. The ads end with an announcer intoning: “Great cheese comes from happy cows. Happy cows come from California.” PETA claims that’s a lie. It claims that California cows live in feces-soaked dirt lots devoid of vegetation and are milked straight through pregnancies, after which their calves are packed in crates and sold as veal. The appeal court’s ruling affirms San Francisco Superior Court Judge David Garcia, who dismissed the suit in 2003. Like the appeal court, Garcia based his decision on California Medical Association v. Regents of the University of California, 79 Cal.App.4th 542, a 2000 2nd District ruling that said a public entity is not a person subject to suit within the meaning of the UCL. The appeal court also noted that while the state Legislature included governmental entities in the Unfair Practices Act of 1941, it didn’t include them in the UCL, enacted in 1977. The justices also agreed with another 2nd District ruling that held it would be an infringement of sovereign power for the milk board to be subject to suit under the UCL for a promotional campaign. They noted, however, that the plain language of the statute was enough to resolve the conflict without addressing the sovereign power issue. As they did during oral arguments, the justices pointed out in the ruling that PETA could have filed a complaint with the director of the state’s Department of Food and Agriculture. The director could have held an administrative hearing, they said, or referred the complaint to the attorney general, if necessary. Matthew Penzer, PETA’s legal counsel, couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday. But San Francisco-based Deputy Attorney General Tiffany Yee, who argued the case for the state, called the outcome a “very good ruling.” “The court was correct by declining to expand 17200′s reach to include the state,” she said, “and by recognizing the state’s ability to promote its economy even if somebody might disagree with what the state says.” The ruling is People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals Inc. v. California Milk Producers Advisory Board, 05 C.D.O.S. 277.

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