Silencing Factory Farm Whistleblowers Violates the First Amendment

For decades, the meat and dairy industries have been subjected to undercover investigations by organizations and individuals who are concerned about inhumane and unhygienic conditions on industrial farms and in slaughterhouses. As a result of a 2008 investigation Americans witnessed the largest meat recall (143 million pounds of beef) in our nation’s history.

Undercover investigations have resulted in improved conditions for farm animals and new regulations on animal confinement in some states. And many fast food restaurants, grocery chains, and meat companies have adopted corporate animal welfare policies as a result of public pressure.  

Despite growing public support for such policies, a wave of  state legislative proposals  to prohibit these investigations has swept across the country. Dubbed “ag-gag” bills, the laws make it a criminal offense for workers on these farms and concerned community members to disseminate photos or videos of conditions on factory farms. Five states have passed ag-gag laws since 2011. Bills have been proposed in 19 other states, but were  defeated following immense public pressure on lawmakers to throw out the legislation.

In an unprecedented move, a federal district judge in Idaho ruled this week that the state’s ag-gag law was unconstitutional. U.S. Chief Judge B. Lynn Winmill rule that the law is in violation of free speech protections awarded under the first amendment, writing in a summary judgment:

The effect of the statute will be to suppress speech by undercover investigators and whistleblowers concerning topics of great public importance: the safety of the public food supply, the safety of agricultural workers, the treatment and health of farm animals, and the impact of business activities on the environment.

This week's ruling was in response to a lawsuit seeking to overturn the ag-gag law filed in March by the Animal Legal Defense Fund and ACLU of Idaho against the state of Idaho. The Idaho law was prompted by the release of an undercover video by the nonprofit Mercy For Animals. The video showed farm workers  at Bettencourt Dairies' Dry Creek Dairy in Hansen, Idaho dragging a downed cow by her neck using a chain attached to a tractor, hitting cows in the head with a cane, and refusing to provide veterinary care to severely injured cows. After the video was released, three workers were charged with cruelty to animals. And then in 2014, the Idaho state legislature passed a law making it illegal to photograph or videotape activities on animal farms.

Ag-gag laws threaten people who come forward to report food safety threats, workers’ rights violations, environmental problems, and animal abuse. Most of these laws appear to be modeled  on a legislation drafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative group for state legislators funded by corporations and animal agriculture interest. 

At a time when small family farms have almost disappeared, when the food supply chain is increasingly controlled by large corporate interests, and most animals raised for food spend their lives in large, windowless sheds, America needs to re-examine its food policies. Trying to address the tough issues raised by the critics of factory farms by blacking out information is un-American and unconstitutional. It’s time to have a large public discussion.

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great article