Utah, like several other states, has made whistle-blowing a crime. If you want to let the public know which agricultural companies are breaking laws — including those addressing animal cruelty, worker safety, the environment and food safety — then Utah wants you in prison. Statutes criminalizing this kind of whistle-blowing are commonly known as “ag-gag” laws.
It seems rather obvious that ag-gag violates the Constitution (free speech, anyone?), and a group of individuals and organizations has just filed a federal lawsuit arguing exactly that. The Animal Legal Defense Fund, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, investigative journalism site Counterpunch, and five individuals (including activist Amy Meyer and journalist Will Potter), started litigation in Salt Lake City alleging that Utah’s ag-gag law is unconstitutional.
Ag-gag is also an extreme and frightening example of wealthy special interests controlling our government to our detriment. The only ones ag-gag laws help are the owners of factory farming facilities that torture animals, abuse workers and sell tainted meat, dairy and eggs to consumers. The animals, workers, the environment and we the people get nothing but screwed.
The sponsor of the ag-gag law in Utah’s House of Representatives said the intent behind the legislation was to stop “national propaganda groups” from using recordings of industrial agriculture companies’ operations with the goal of “undoing animal agriculture,” according to the complaint that started the new lawsuit. These statutes are animal agriculture’s way of silencing critics.
Utah’s law provides criminal punishment for what it calls “agricultural operation interference.” An agricultural operation is “private property used for the production of livestock, poultry, livestock products, or poultry products.” So we’re talking about any business that exploits and kills animals for their meat, milk or eggs.
A person can break that law, or “interfere,” in several ways:
1. Recording images or sounds from an operation with a recording device left on the property;
2. Using false pretenses to gain access to an operation;
3. Recording while criminally trespassing on an agricultural operation; or
4. Getting a job at an agricultural operation with the intent of recording activities there, then making the recordings while knowing that doing so is against company policy.
The penalty for any of these actions is up to a year in prison and fines. It appears likely that each separate photograph could be a separate crime, meaning someone who took 50 photographs of pork contaminated with feces could be sentenced to up to 50 years in prison.
The law’s passage has factory farm owners and boosters drunk with power. They arrested and pressed charges against Amy Meyer for recording activities at a slaughterhouse — while she was standing across the street from it on a public sidewalk. Here is some of her video of a person who seems to be the slaughterhouse owner, and of a cop, trying to bully her into leaving.
Meyer had to hire a lawyer and enter a plea in court before the avalanche of bad media forced authorities to drop the charges. If you’re in an ag-gag state, think twice before you whip out your phone and hit “record” in public.
Applying these laws to a different context, like child abuse, crystallizes just how dangerous they are. If parents who suspected abuse at their children’s day care center hid a video camera there to see how employees treated their kids, they would be guilty under an ag-gag type law. If they had someone apply for a job at the center in order to tape the goings-on, that person would be guilty, and so would the parents. They could all be thrown in prison for trying to protect their children. If the people who care can’t enforce laws (like the ones protecting our food supply and animals), then who will?
It doesn’t seem fair that businesses can record us, even when we are walking on public sidewalks — just look up in any major city and you’ll see the security cameras — but we can’t record them. Why do corporate citizens get more protection, and get to be more invasive, than actual human beings?
Well, they don’t, if the Constitution has its way. The new lawsuit describes how ag-gag laws like Utah’s violate three different parts of the U.S. Constitution.
1. The Free Speech Clause, First Amendment.
“Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”
Ag-gag criminalizes speech based on its content by prohibiting criticism of factory farming. It stops the press from conducting exposes about where our food comes from. Yet it permits factory farm owners to record and publish any kind of self-flattering material they want. Methinks that it is industrial agriculture that has the “national propaganda groups.”
2. The Supremacy Clause, Article VI.
“This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof…shall be the supreme Law of the Land…any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.”
The federal government is in charge. When it doesn’t have laws about something — like robbing people, for example — states are welcome to make their own laws. But when Congress or the Constitution does have a rule about something, the states can’t override it.
Yet that is what Utah is trying to do. By preventing the discovery and recording of violations of federal animal cruelty, worker safety, environmental and food safety laws, the state’s ag-gag statute makes them impossible to enforce. The state has gutted a whole passel of federal laws in one blow. The founding fathers made that a no-no.
3. Equal Protection Clause, Fourteenth Amendment.
“No State shall make or enforce any law which shall…deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
The plaintiffs’ lawsuit against Utah’s version of ag-gag notes that “the law is motivated by animus towards a politically unpopular group — animal protection advocates.” It is pretty hard to deny. The tycoons who make their money off the suffering of animals, exploitation of low-wage (and mostly undocumented immigrant) workers, destruction of the environment and endangerment of consumers’ health most assuredly hate animal advocates who work to expose them, and Utah’s ag-gag law most assuredly came straight from those tycoons. Animal advocates, as well as immigrant advocates, environmentalists and food safety advocates are entitled to as much protection from Utah’s legislature as the factory farmers get.
Many state governments that have or want ag-gag laws will watch this lawsuit closely. It is now up to the courts to remind states that corporations cannot buy themselves a free pass to break any laws they want and toss their critics into prison.
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