Idaho's "Ag-Gag" Law Threatens Transparency, Food Safety, and Workers' Rights

veal calves

On Feb. 28, Idaho became the seventh state in the country to criminalize filming abusive or otherwise unethical activities on farms. These laws (dubbed "ag-gag" laws) limit transparency and keep Americans in the dark about food safety problems. Activists, journalists, and whistleblowers play a vital role in exposing animal abuse, unsafe working conditions, and other violations on farms.

Idaho's "Ag-Gag" Law

In 2012, Mercy for Animals, an animal rights organization, released a video showing employees at an Idaho dairy facility abusing cows. An activist got a job at Bettencourt Dairies' Dry Creek Dairy in Hansen and shot the video using a hidden camera. The video showed workers at the dairy farm beating cows with a cane, kicking and stomping them, and dragging a cow by a chain around its neck. As a result of the incident, five dairy employees were fired and convicted of animal abuse.

Many would call the incident a victory for transparency and accountability. You might expect it would lead to regulatory reforms to ensure better treatment of animals in other facilities. You would be wrong. The incident prompted the dairy industry to launch a campaign to criminalize such videos. Senate Bill 1337, signed into law on Feb. 28, aims to "protect agricultural production facilities from interference by wrongful conduct." Rather than considering animal abuse at dairy farms the "wrongful conduct," the law finds exposing animal abuse the crime.

The new law makes it a crime for anyone, including journalists and employees, to film or record inside an agricultural operation without permission. Those convicted under the new law face up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine (twice the maximum penalty for animal cruelty under Idaho law). Moreover, those found guilty would have to compensate the company, to the tune of twice the value of damages their investigation or exposé caused. Even a false statement on a job application to a factory farm could lead to prosecution.

Local Reaction to the New Law

This legislation was heavily criticized by the state's residents, newspapers, and even some in the dairy industry. Hamdi Ulukaya, CEO of Chobani Yogurt, urged Governor Butch Otter to reconsider his support of this bill. "A bill is up for approval in Idaho that, if passed, would limit transparency and make some instances of exposing the mistreatment of animals in the state punishable by imprisonment. This could cause the general public concern and conflicts with our views and values," Ulukaya said in a statement. The company has a $450 million plant in south-central Idaho's dairy region.

The Idaho Mountain Express, a state newspaper, observed that "[p]utting private interests above public interests in the Constitution is troubling and egregious." According to the newspaper's editorial board, Idaho should not "criminalize the collection and release of information about the food we eat." The U.S. Constitution protects this type of activity through the First Amendment's freedom of the press.

"Mercy For Animals is exploring all legal avenues to overturn this dangerous, unconstitutional, and un-American law," said Nathan Runkle, the group's executive director. "This is a sad day for animals, consumers, the constitution, and the media… Idaho's flawed and misdirected new law will now throw shut the doors to industrial factory farms and allow animal abuse, environmental violations, and food contamination to flourish undetected, unchallenged, and unaddressed." But Idaho is not the only state where the agricultural industry is attempting to silence its critics.

Other State "Ag-Gag" Bills

The nationwide battle over "ag gag" legislation has increased in the past few years, although most sponsors have had difficulty passing the bills in their state legislatures. Lawmakers in Arizona, New Hampshire, and Indiana have introduced bills this year. Eleven other states introduced bills last year, but not a single one passed.

However, "ag gag" laws are already on the books in six states – Iowa, Utah, Missouri, North Dakota, Montana, and Kansas. Iowa passed its law in 2012, only a few months after an ABC News report featured undercover video of inhumane and unsanitary conditions at one of the country's biggest egg companies, located in Vincent, IA. Iowa's law does not explicitly make filming a crime; state officials decided to remove that language to avoid constitutional challenges. But it does make it a crime for anyone to gain entrance to a farm or slaughterhouse on false pretenses.

Utah, which also passed its "ag gag" bill in 2012, retained language making it a crime for anyone to film. Almost a year after the law went into effect, a local resident and activist, Amy Meyer, was charged for filming a Utah slaughterhouse. While standing on a public road, Meyer shot footage of a loader dumping a sick cow outside the slaughterhouse. Prosecutors later dropped the charges after it became clear that she filmed the incident from a public road and not on the facility's property.

Many of these "ag gag" laws have their origins on model legislation drafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the conservative think tank that has been behind legislative campaigns, such as voter ID laws and laws mandating states to teach climate change denial in schools. In 2002, ALEC introduced model legislation called the Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act, which labels people who film animal operations as "terrorists" and criminalizes taking such pictures. In 2004, ALEC began pushing the legislation, and many state "ag gag" bills have borrowed language from it.

The Threat to the Public Interest

Undercover investigations were the impetus for the nation's food safety laws. Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, an exposé of Chicago's meat packing industry, led to the passage of the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906. More recently, Michael Pollin's exposé of the fast food and meat industries and concerns about more food imports led to passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act in 2010. These types of food safety laws and investigations help protect the public from "mad cow" disease, E. coli, and Salmonella.

"Ag gag" laws are a threat to our constitutional rights of freedom of speech and a free press, and legal challenges are mounting. On July 22, 2013, the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), and others, with lawyers from the University of Denver, filed a lawsuit challenging Utah's "ag gag" law on constitutional grounds in federal court. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has filed an amicus brief on behalf of 17 media organizations. Seventy-seven groups, including a wide variety of welfare, civil liberties, environmental, food safety, and First Amendment organizations, joined together to sign a statement of opposition to these laws, asserting:

Not only would these bills perpetuate animal abuse on industrial farms, they would also threaten workers' rights, consumer health and safety, law enforcement investigations and the freedom of journalists, employees and the public at large to share information about something as fundamental as our food supply. We call on state legislators around the nation to drop or vote against these dangerous and un-American efforts.

Groups that signed onto the statement included: the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Human Rights Watch, the Government Accountability Project, the AFL-CIO, and Sierra Club.

Take Action

If you live in a state that has introduced an "ag gag" bill and want to weigh in, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has an advocacy center with information about how to contact your elected officials to express your concerns. The advocacy center also provides tips on how to write effective letters to legislators and other decision makers, with templates included.

Teaser image courtesy of Farm Sanctuary, used under a Creative Commons license.

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