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Gonzo Beer Label Raises Constitutional Issue

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (CN) - Flying Dog Brewery says the Michigan Liquor Control Commission violated its "core First Amendment" rights by prohibiting sale of its "Raging Bitch" India Pale Ale, falsely stating that its "Gonzo-inspired label," designed by Ralph Steadman, "is 'detrimental to the public health, safety and welfare.'"

Flying Dog says: "Beer bottles should be regulated not by the expression of their labels, but by the character of their content."

The label features a drawing of a female dog and commentary inspired by brewery founder George Stranahan's "longtime friend and neighbor, the iconoclastic journalist and literary figure Hunter S. Thompson," according to the federal complaint.

The Denver-based brewery, runs its business out of Frederick, Md.

Award-winning illustrator Ralph Steadman, who collaborated with Hunter S. Thompson on the book "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," designed the brewery's beer labels.

"In celebration of its twentieth anniversary, Flying Dog created RAGING BITCH, a Belgian-style India Pale Ale," which was "voted among the 'Top Ten New Beers in America in 2010' by MODERN BREWERY AGE, and is now Flying Dog's top selling beer," according to the complaint.

The label shows a picture of a female dog (a bitch) with the inscription: "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!"

Flying Dog says that in Michigan, "Beer must be truthfully labeled with the contents of the beverage and must be registered with and approved for sale by Defendant Commission. Defendants reserve the right to reject the registration of any beer label 'that is deemed to promote violence, racism, sexism, intemperance, or intoxication or to be detrimental to the health, safety, or welfare of the general public.'" (Citations omitted.)

Flying Dog says it applied to the commission in 2009 for a license to sell "Raging Bitch" in Michigan, was denied, and then asked for reconsideration.

"At the hearing, Defendant Commission's attorney, Howard Goldberg, objected not only to the RAGING BITCH brand name, but also to Ralph Steadman's statement on the beer label. And although Goldberg offered he was not suggesting the censorship of Flying Dog's website, he pointed to Flying Dog's website in asserting that 'there is a tenor, if you will, to the promotion that I think that you [the Commission] have quite correctly caught and need to address.'"

The commission denied Flying Dog's appeal again in 2010, stating again that "the label in question contains such language deemed detrimental to the health, safety or welfare of the general public."

Flying Dog says it cannot sell "Raging Bitch" in Michigan without the license for fear of criminal penalties, and that its inability to sell the ale in the state hurts its business.

"Regrettably, the Michigan Liquor Control Commission and its members have taken it upon themselves to control not merely alcoholic beverage, but speech as well," Flying Dog says.

In the Statement of Facts, the complaint states: "Flying Dog takes its name from a painting of a flying dog hanging in a Pakistani hotel, which brewery co-founder George Stranahan happened upon after a Himalayan climbing expedition. Appreciating the artwork's can-do spirit, Stranahan adopted this mascot and moniker

for his brewery because it represents the idea that 'it is amazing what you can achieve if nobody tells you that you can't.'"

After noting Stranahan's friendship with Thompson aka Dr. Gonzo, the complaint adds: "Flying Dog's identity, and that of its products, is inextricably imbued with and promotes the irreverent 'gonzo' spirit and outlook for which Thompson is noted."

Flying Dog also makes Doggie Style Classic Pale Ale, In Heat Wheat Hefeweizen Ale, Horn Dog Barley Wine, and K-9 Cruiser Winter Ale, the complaint states.

Flying Dog demands an injunction that will allow it to sell Raging Bitch in Michigan.Its lead counsel is Alan Gura with Gura & Possessky of Alexandra, Va.

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