With his inky caricatures, Ralph Steadman has made a distinguished career out of pricking the pomposity of the establishment. But the British cartoonist is unlikely to have imagined that it would be his design for a beer label that would see his work banned on grounds of public health and the subject of a censorship battle now raging in the American courts.
The 74-year-old, whose work has featured frequently in The Independent, is at the heart of a legal case against an unlikely foe in the shape of the Michigan Liquor Commission, after it decided to ban a luridly named pale ale called Raging Bitch, on the grounds that his cartoon label and accompanying slogan was "detrimental to the public health, safety and welfare".
A claim for damages was this week brought by the US-based producer of the beer, which sells 900,000 cases worldwide – including in Britain – on the grounds that the decision violates the First Amendment guaranteeing freedom of expression under the American Constitution and unfairly besmirches Steadman's right to produce eye-catching art.
The satirical cartoonist from Kent, who was introduced to the brewer through his long-standing collaboration with the famously dissolute "Gonzo" journalist Hunter S Thompson, said the ban by the US state amounted to an old-fashioned attempt to stifle creativity. Steadman, who has won multiple awards for his distinctive cartoons and worked for publications including Private Eye and Rolling Stone, said: "Freedom of speech and artistic expression is as fundamental to our being as is the alphabet itself. I thought censorship went out with DH Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover about 50 years ago."
The artist was commissioned in 2009 to produce the artwork for the beer to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the founding of the Flying Dog Brewery as part of his long-standing relationship with the Maryland-based company. It has since become the brewer's top-selling brand and was last year voted one of America's top 10 new beers.
But officials in Michigan took against Steadman's creation, which consisted of an image of a slathering dog and a marketing blurb written by the cartoonist, who helped develop the notion of "Gonzo" with Thompson as writing in which the author's experience is at the heart of any story.
The slogan read: "Two inflammatory words... one wild drink. Nectar imprisoned in a bottle. Let it out... Remember, enjoying a Raging Bitch, unleashed, untamed, unbridled – and in heat – is pure Gonzo."
The Michigan Liquor Commission declined to comment on the legal proceedings.
But in documents filed to the US District Court, Flying Dog said it wanted a judge to reverse the ban on the British artist's work and award damages for lost sales.
Jim Caruso, the brewery's chief executive, who was introduced to Steadman by Thompson, said: "This is about much more than a beer label. It's about regulators gradually morphing into the thought police. We believe not only in freedom of speech and artistic expression for both businesses and individuals, but also in the right to choose or reject books, art, literature and artisanal craft beer."