A Video Conversation with Jim Caruso, CEO of Flying Dog Brewery- Freedom of Speech in a Beer Label

Maryland’s largest brewery, concocting one-of-a-kind craft beer

Jim Caruso is the CEO and General Partner of Flying Dog Brewery in Frederick, Maryland. Founded by astrophysicist and rancher George Stranahan in 1990 in Aspen, Colorado, Flying Dog was one of the first brewpubs to open in the Rocky Mountains. Sixteen years later, the company purchased the Frederick Brewing Company, which eventually became Flying Dog’s headquarters after the closure of its Denver facility. Today, Flying Dog is the largest brewery in Maryland and the 37th largest in the US. Emblazoned with names such as Raging Bitch, Bloodline, Snake Dog, and Fever Dream, Flying Dog’s labels feature art created by Ralph Steadman, who connected with the company through a mutual friend of Steadman’s: Hunter S. Thompson.

 

Flying Dog was in protracted legal battle over “Raging Bitch,” the name of one of your beers. After the case ended, the company created an organization that advocates for free speech. Why is this issue so important to you?

 

JIM CARUSO: If you say “freedom of speech” in breweries, the Flying Dog name will come up. I guess the source for this, whether it’s George Stranahan and his entrepreneurial, independent spirit, up there in Colorado; or our a connection with Hunter S. Thompson; my maternal grandparents leaving Russia after the troubles and before the revolution; we are very, very much proponents, believers in, and advocates, and make real the concept of personal and individual freedom, economic freedom, and opportunity for people. This is who we are. Whenever you see constraints on that, we object to that. Freedom of speech does come up in this industry because both the federal government and the state liquor commissions have to approve beer labels.

 

And there’s been this interesting phenomenon. There was something called Prohibition which would’ve made this not possible, and the 21st Amendment repealed Prohibition. It gave states at that time the right to control alcohol. Well, there was this dynamic that I think came into play that states thought that somehow that meant that they were immune to the First Amendment—that a body could control the beer and the labels. So there’s been an ongoing interesting relationship between breweries, distilleries, wineries, and appointed officials on liquor commissions across the country from time to time rejecting labels—because they didn’t like the label, they had a personal agenda, they might have been extremely squeamish—for reasons that had nothing to do with constitutional freedoms.

 

We’ve had a couple of run-ins. Ralph’s art is edgy for sure, but under no definition is it obscene or banned language and it’s not hateful. In fact, similar to Ralph, I am the most anti-bully person that I know. I mean, I object to anything. We would never do stuff that’s offensive, but “edgy and fun” is different from offensive. The first label that we received from Ralph had the saying “Good Beer No Shit” on it, which related to an essay that Hunter wrote for the release of Road Dog. Each bottle had a little neck around it with this essay by Hunter. It was an interesting essay, and it finished with this ancient Celtic axiom, etc., etc.: “Good People Drink Good Beer.” So, Ralph put “Good Beer No Shit” on the label saying,” my friend Hunter wrote this essay, and of course good people drink good beer.”

 

The Colorado Liquor Commission rejected it. ACLU took that to the Colorado Supreme Court. It was an administrative decision, and we won. They overruled the Liquor Commission. We didn’t do that because we just were against authority for authority’s sake. It was wrong. It was a crime against freedom of speech that corporations are entitled to. And it was art that was being banned. It was in 1995 back then, but still modern times.

 

Then we had a run in with Michigan who banned the Raging Bitch label. This was a bigger deal. That was a situation where Michigan—again appointed officials that, as regulators, often have the belief that they can enact laws without referendums or people voting on them, take political correctness to an extreme, and political correctness in that regard is just a way to get people to stop talking about stuff and control their thoughts and you can’t talk about this—and they rejected our label for some pretty ludicrous reasons. We sued the commissioners as individuals in federal court, the Western District. The opinion was not in our favor. The opinion was “they may or may not have violated your First Amendment rights, but they are immune from prosecution, even if they did, because they’re regulators” That, of course, we didn’t believe was true. We appealed at the Federal Court of Appeals level, Sixth District, and the decision was unanimously in our favor: that “yes, you can sue them, they’re not immune from prosecution.” The minority opinion went so far as to say “…and this was a clear violation for Flying Dog’s First Amendment right to freedom of speech and expression. Go back to Michigan and figure out what the damages were.” Michigan settled up quickly and we moved on.

 

We took the proceeds from the damages and created the First Amendment Society, because again, this had nothing to do with publicity or one style of beer in one state that’s even a little bit off of our radar. It was about what might seem like petty tyranny of a beer label, but it’s really about constitutional freedoms and those are being chipped away at. The cover of The Economist magazine two weeks ago was “Freedom of Speech Under Attack.” And we see that over and over again. So, we created the First Amendment Society. It’s separate from Flying Dog, but we funded it to start with and it’s so that we can have some residual benefit from this experience in Michigan and continue that conversation.

 

 

 

 

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