After nearly six weeks, more than two dozen witnesses, untold legal fees and long arguments about agricultural economics and freedom of speech, the case of the Texas cattlemen against talk show host Oprah Winfrey was resolved today: Oprah won.

The jury of eight women and four men decided that Winfrey, her Harpo Productions Inc. and Howard Lyman, a guest on her show, did not hurt four Amarillo ranching families and their cattle companies with an April 16, 1996, show on mad cow disease. The plaintiffs claimed that comments made during the program, including Winfrey's disgusted vow that she would never eat another hamburger, caused cattle prices to plummet, costing them about $11 million. "My reaction is that free speech not only lives, it rocks!" Winfrey said, pumping her fist in the air as she emerged from the federal courthouse here, surrounded by lawyers and bodyguards.

A crowd of supporters shouted, "O-prah! O-prah!" as she spoke. One woman yelled, "We've been praying for you!"

Winfrey, who moved her popular television show from Chicago to this city of 180,000 for the duration of the trial, said the proceedings were "a very difficult and stressful time, but I've come through it a stronger person." She added that, in her view, there was never a question that she or Lyman did anything wrong and that she never considered settling the suit despite estimates the defense cost her between $500,000 and $1 million.

Lead plaintiff Paul Engler, wearing a white cowboy hat, vowed to appeal the verdict. "From the word get-go, there was never anything frivolous about this suit," he said, and, putting the best face on the loss, he insisted some good came from the trial.

"We believe we made one point, very strongly and very emphatically to everyone -- that U.S. beef is safe," he said, referring to testimony that there has not been a documented case of mad cow disease in the United States.

The "Oprah Winfrey Show" episode in question, a segment on "Dangerous Foods," was aired after news outlets reported that at least 10 people in Britain died of the brain-wasting ailment, which they contracted from eating beef contaminated when cattle were fed protein supplements produced from the wastes of slaughtered cattle. Lyman, a former Montana rancher and now an official with the Humane Society of the United States, compared the mysterious disease and its long incubation period to AIDS and speculated that it already is rampant among American cattle.

The show never touched specifically on Texas cattle or named the plaintiffs, but they argued that Winfrey's influence was so great that they suffered devastating financial losses simply as a result of the program's airing.

Originally, the cattlemen's suit was seen as the first major test of the constitutionality of "veggie libel" laws, which have been enacted in Texas and a dozen other states in recent years to protect perishable agricultural products from unsubstantiated attacks about their safety. Critics have expressed fear the laws could have a muzzling effect on free speech, making the media hesitant to write or say anything that could be construed as damaging.

But in a surprise move last week -- and a clear-cut victory for Winfrey -- U.S. District Judge Mary Lou Robinson ruled that the case could not continue under the agriculture disparagement law.

The judge's move reduced the suit to a basic business defamation case. That imposed on the cattle ranchers a higher burden of proof, meaning jurors had to decide if Winfrey and Lyman deliberately and recklessly made false statements, not just whether the cattlemen suffered financial loss because of the statements.

David J. Bederman, a professor of law at Emory University in Atlanta who has questioned the constitutionality of the veggie libel laws, said the judge may simply "have decided beef on the hoof are not perishable" and shifted the case away from the veggie libel law and its emphasis on financial loss.

"It was certainly not a ruling on the constitutionality of the statutes," Bederman said, "but that the plaintiffs failed to prove what they were supposed to prove."

Both Bederman and Sandra Baron, executive director of the Libel Defense Resource Center in New York, said the verdict may nevertheless dampen some of the enthusiasm the agriculture industry has had for the disparagement laws.

Jurors explained they were influenced by concerns about First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech. They apparently took to heart the closing arguments Wednesday of Winfrey's attorney, Charles Babcock, who said the case "was about robust debate and it's about the unfettered exchange of ideas."

After the verdict, juror Pat Gowdy told reporters: "We felt that a lot of rights have eroded in this country. Our freedom of speech may be the only one we have left to regain what we've lost."

Winfrey said that point had become clear to her during the trial. "I believed from the beginning, this was an attempt to muzzle this voice," she said. " . . . I believe I'm one of those people who took {freedom of speech} for granted, and it will never be that way again."

As for her controversial anti-burger vow, Winfrey said she has stuck with it. "I am still off hamburgers," she said, "and I think I'm going to be off hamburgers." CAPTION: And the Winner Is . . . Talk show host Oprah Winfrey celebrates what she called a victory for free speech in the jury verdict against Texan cattlemen who claimed that her show on mad cow disease defamed the beef industry. (Photo ran on page A01) CAPTION: Paul Engler, left, with attorney Michael St. Denis, sued Oprah Winfrey over show on mad cow disease.