Dairy farmers who have gotten mad about "Got Milk?" challenged the multimillion-dollar program Tuesday in federal court.

In this latest fight over farm-centered free speech, small-town producers have joined libertarian lawyers to take on the Agriculture Department. They want to stop the program, which makes producers pay promotional fees that pay for advertising.

“It's a matter of principle,” said Eric Schippers, executive director of the Northern Virginia-based Center for Individual Freedom. “We believe these programs are unconstitutional and amount to compelled speech.”

Schippers' organization is representing a north-central Pennsylvania couple, Joe and Brenda Cochran, who object to paying $3,500 annually in fees on their 150-cow farm. The organization, which declines to make public its financial backers, also is representing Montana ranchers challenging a mandatory beef-promotion program.

“They're against having to fork over this huge amount of money,” Schippers said, not least, because the generic advertising can end up aiding competitors.

But supporters of the programs, including the National Dairy Promotion and Research Board now being challenged, say they help everyone in the industry. The mandatory fees, they say, are the only way to ensure that some don't slide in for a free ride.

“Our program has really helped the industry market its products,” said Nancy Fletcher, communications director for the Modesto-based California Milk Advisory Board. “What we're hearing overwhelmingly is support from the California industry for what we're doing.”

The question for a federal judge in Scranton, Pa., becomes whether milk is more like a mushroom or a plum.

In separate cases involving California farm groups, the Supreme Court has ruled different ways on mandatory assessment programs.

In 1997, the ruling on a challenge pressed by a Fresno County grower, the court upheld a promotion program for plums, peaches and nectarines.

But last year, the court struck down the promotion program overseen by the California-based Mushroom Council.

The court distinguished the cases by examining the markets. Peaches, plums and nectarines are covered by a more sweeping marketing order that restricts farmer freedom by imposing size and quality standards. Mandatory fees fit better within this regulated market than in the relatively more free mushroom market, the court figured.

The dairy program dwarfs both the mushroom and the tree-fruit programs. For nationwide efforts, some $85 million is raised annually. An additional $169 million a year is collected through the mandatory fees and funneled to state programs, which include the California Milk Producers Advisory Board.

The money pays for everything from the "Got Milk?" campaign to a new television pitch proclaiming "Ahh, the power of cheese."

Modesto Bee