Lawyers representing ABC News and two former USDA inspectors squared off Tuesday in a South Dakota courtroom against attorneys for Beef Products Inc. (BPI) in a defamation lawsuit stemming from the television network’s coverage of the company’s product, “lean finely textured beef,” commonly referred to as “pink slime,” in a series of critical media coverage last year. BPI wants $1.2 billion in damages, saying the public backlash from misleading media coverage caused their business to drop by 80 percent and forced the owners to close three out of four processing plants, laying off hundreds of workers. The defendants say they were exercising their First Amendment rights and did not spread dishonest information. Between news stories and social media posts, ABC News allegedly referred to BPI’s beef additive as “pink slime” 137 times over a four-week period. ABC’s attorney Kevin Bane said it was the organization’s free speech right to do so and that the news coverage never claimed that the product was unsafe. The defendants argued three motions in the four-hour meeting, including a motion to dismiss the case because of a lack of facts supporting a defamation or product disparagement claim. The defense team also argued that the two former USDA inspectors, Gerald Zirnstein and Carl Custer – who allegedly defamed BPI as sources in the news stories – did not do anything that merited being brought to court under South Dakota jurisdiction. Food safety attorney Bill Marler represents Zirnstein and Custer. Marler’s law firm, Marler Clark, underwrites Food Safety News. “This case certainly raises some interesting legal issues about journalism in the age of the Internet and social media,” Marler said after the hearing. “It’s going to be interesting to see how courts begin to apply all these new rules over time.” South Dakota Circuit Court Judge Cheryle Gering did not specify when she would issue a written ruling on the motions.