Flying Dog’s court victory to pay dividends for free speech

Flying Dog Brewery will use some of the legal damages from its free speech victory over the state of Michigan to fund scholarships for journalism students in celebration of its Gonzo-style take on the microbrew scene.

Flying Dog first came on the scene in 1990, but drew national criticism in 2009 after its Belgian IPA was pushed out of the market by Michigan’s Liquor Control Commission (LCC) over objections to its off-color brand name: Raging Bitch. In fact, the LCC ultimately banned the sale of Raging Bitch in Michigan when local leaders deemed the controversial brew “detrimental to the health, safety, and welfare” of Michiganders.

Flying Dog, of course, is intentionally scandalous in its marketing strategy, commemorating the irreverent spirit of founder George Stranahan’s late friend, Hunter S. Thompson—journalism icon and father of the Gonzo movement, which came to define a new generation of writers.

Indeed, Thompson’s illustrator, Ralph Steadman, who detailed Thompson’s voyage into the degeneracy of the 70’s, has designed many of the labels for Flying Dog’s beers, including Raging Bitch, which he described as “two inflammatory words…one wild drink.”

Michigan, however, found the contents of Raging Bitch to be so offensive that it was deemed a violation of Michigan Administrative Code Rule 436, which authorized the rejection of any beer label that promoted “violence, racism, sexism, intemperance, or intoxication,” a court summary of the case states.

Accordingly, Flying Dog sued the LCC on the grounds that it violated the company’s First Amendment rights and unlawfully limited an open and free market society. After six years, the two parties have just now reached a settlement, favoring Flying Dog’s appeal and resulting in $40,000 in damages.

Now, the company has promised to launch a scholarship fund at the University of Maryland, College park to help journalism students pay their way through college, and has also created a new organization, the First Amendment Society, to support free speech nationwide.

“Free speech is being infringed upon, again and again,” CEO Jim Caruso explained. “We want this dialogue to continue—this was never about the money.”

In a profile published last August, when his company was in the midst of its legal battles, Caruso offered his opinions on the current state of free speech in America, describing the LCC’s oversight as “arbitrary authoritarianism.”

“We don’t like…arbitrary authoritarianism,” he remarked. “The market should decide. If they don’t like our beer or our names, they can choose not to buy it. We do believe that freedom of speech is the last defense against tyranny.”

Erin Weston, Flying Dog’s director of communications, agreed with Caruso’s sentiments, saying the company strongly advocates for Americans’ rights to free expression.

“Whether you agree with it or not—as Americans, we have the right to say it,” she said. “Just because it might be offensive to you, or offensive to somebody that you know—that doesn’t take away that person’s right to be able to express that.”

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