In response to exposés by animal-protection organizations — some of which have led to meat recalls or criminal cruelty charges and convictions — the meat industry has hired lobbyists to push for laws that prevent people from investigating and documenting its practices. Astonishingly, Utah lawmakers bowed to this pressure last year and made it a crime to photograph or videotape “animal agriculture” operations. Even though I was always on public property when I filmed the horrors I saw outside that slaughterhouse in February, I became the first person charged under one of these “ag-gag” laws.
After my case received national attention, prosecutors quickly dropped the charges against me. But the law remains in force in Utah, and similar laws are in effect in other states. North Carolina is considering a bill, the Commerce Protection Act, whose language is so broad that it applies to all industries and would require any undercover recording to be turned over to local law enforcement within 24 hours of recording. Fortunately, the momentum behind such laws may be shifting. Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam vetoed a bill last month that would have required those recording abuse of livestock to turn the footage over to law enforcement within 48 hours. Haslam (R) called the bill “constitutionally suspect” and said that it violated the state shield law and could hinder investigations of animal cruelty.
What happened to me shows that any ag-gag law, even one that is “narrowly tailored,” as proponents of Utah’s legislation claim, will be used to instill fear in law-abiding people who are simply trying to document cruelty to animals. This has a chilling effect on the gathering and disseminating of information in the public interest.
Despite the potential First Amendment infringement and public opposition to these laws — national polling last year by the public opinion firm Lake Research Partners found that 64 percent of Americans oppose outlawing undercover examinations of animal treatment — ag-gag legislation has been introduced in 11 states this year.
In some ways, it is understandable that those in agribusiness would want to prevent Americans from learning what happens to animals. Standard practice in the pork industry is for growers to lock pigs in two-foot-wide cages, barely larger than their bodies, Mercy for Animals has reported. Pigs are highly intelligent, social animals, yet those raised on factory farms are isolated and immobilized for most of their short, pain-filled lives. PETA and others have reported the egg industry practice of hens being crammed into cages so small the animals can’t spread their wings. Millions of cows and pigs raised for human consumption routinely have their genitals and tails cut off without any painkiller — an action that would lead to lawsuits and possibly jail time if the victims were dogs or cats rather than piglets or calves.
The abuse of animals on factory farms deserves more, not less, attention. Fortunately, exposés of animal mistreatment and health initiatives
come amid changes in consumer habits. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Americans’ meat consumption declined 12 percent between 2007 and 2012. Some in the meat industry worry that this trend is harming profits. That their response has been to try to choke off information should make us all wonder what some producers are trying to hide.
It is, of course, up to individuals whether this is an industry they want to support every time they sit down to eat — and whether the lawmakers working to pass ag-gag bills are ones they want to support at the ballot box.