Three grape growers lost a bid to a federal appeals court in San Francisco today to challenge fees paid to the California Table Grape Commission for generic advertising.

The Delano Farms Co. and two smaller growers claimed that the generic ads they were forced to support violated their First Amendment free-speech rights.

The long-running lawsuit was filed in federal court in Fresno in 1996. At the time, growers were required to pay the commission 13 cents per box for marketing and research projects.

By the time of the appeal, Delano Farms told the court it was paying $600,000 per year.

The ads produced by the commission for billboards and radio commercials emphasized table grapes as healthy snacks.

The three growers argued that approach conflicted with their goals because ads suggested that all table grapes are the same. They said they wanted to promote the concept that their grapes are different from those of their competitors.

But a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the lawsuit.

The court said that because the commission is controlled by the state, its ads are government speech and under previously set court doctrines can’t be challenged on First Amendment grounds.

The commission was established by the state Legislature in 1967 to conduct marketing and research for the industry. The state Department of Food and Agriculture appoints the commissioners and oversees the group’s activities.

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