California Student Who Criticized Dairy Milk At School Wins Landmark Case

Speaking out against dairy in schools is protected by the First Amendment


4 Minutes Read

Cartons of milk in a school cafeteria An LA student took her school district to court over her right to promote vegan milk - Media Credit: Adobe Stock

A student who was told not to share information about the negative impacts of dairy milk had her right to free speech violated, a landmark ruling has found.

In a legal settlement, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) acknowledged the right to speak out against dairy as a matter of free speech.

The claimant Marielle Williamson had been told she could not hand out leaflets explaining that the dairy industry harms human health, animals, and the environment without also distributing pro-dairy propaganda.

As part of the settlement, the school district also said it will support giving soy milk to students who request it.

“This is a huge win for free speech advocates and for critics of dairy in schools who, until today, had been silenced by the threat of censure if there was a perceived criticism of dairy products,” said Deborah Press, associate general counsel at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

Speaking out against dairy is a First Amendment right

Vegan student Marielle Williamson from Los Angeles, who is suing her school district
Supplied Marielle, 17, has won her case

The settlement acknowledges students’ right to criticize dairy in school.

Williamson, who is 17 years old, was a senior at Eagle Rock High School when she tried to distribute information about the harms of dairy. She was told by her school that she could not share information about plant-based milk or be critical of the dairy industry unless she also provided pro-dairy content.

In response, Williamson sued her school district and the U.S. Department of Agriculture for violating her First Amendment right. She brought a lawsuit against the LAUSD in May 2023, supported by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a non-profit medical ethics organization.

After the settlement, Williamson said in a statement: “I am very grateful we were able to reach an agreement with LAUSD that enshrines the free speech rights that led to challenging school policies. The changes ensure that other students who want to speak openly about dairy have the ability to do so.”

What’s wrong with dairy?

Dairy products have a range of negative impacts on human health and the environment, as well as ethical concerns around the treatment of animals.

Experts such as the American Heart Association (AHA) and the NHS in the UK recommend that people reduce sources of saturated fat to avoid heart disease. Dairy products that are high in saturated fats include cheese, cream, ice cream, sour cream, and butter. 

A 2021 review found that casomorphins in dairy could be linked to diseases including type 1 diabetes and heart disease. Moreover, studies have suggested that contaminated milk with antibiotic residues is an emerging public health problem worldwide.

Big Dairy’s political might

Despite the problems dairy causes to humans and animals, a federal law dictates that cow’s milk must be offered at every school lunch and breakfast served under the USDA’s National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program.

“One of the biggest things we’re trying to do is to spread awareness to this information that is overshadowed by dairy industry propaganda,” Williamson previously told Plant Based News.

Dairy promotions are commonplace in schools. As well as being the compulsory drink, “Got Milk?” ads were played during morning announcements at Williamson’s school. School cafeterias also cannot promote drinks other than dairy milk in a way that may detract from dairy milk sales.

The settlement sets a precedent for students’ right to speak out against the harms of dairy.

Deborah Press added: “While the dairy industry may have used its political might to force milk into school meals, schools can’t silence students who want to speak out about a product they see as bad for health, animals, and the planet.”

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