‘Ag-gag’ bills harm free speech: Column
Imagine Upton Sinclair with an iPhone.
Sinclair went undercover in 1904 to document squalid conditions in Chicago’s meatpacking plants, leading to his muckraking novel The Jungle. His reporting led to new public health laws two years later. In today’s social media world, Upton’s expose would have gone viral. Sure, we would have lost a classic book, but just consider the retweets.
That possibility unsettles some in the agriculture industry. Concern about videos of alleged animal abuse reaching a global audience has inspired a new wave of legislation across the USA. Bills pending in at least nine states would limit videos and photographs on farms or force video-takers to immediately turn them over to the authorities. The reporting requirement sounds like an effort to expose wrongdoing, but it has just the opposite effect. Farm employees who witness unsafe or unsanitary practices aren’t about to inform on their bosses.
Among the pending bills:
- Legislation in the California assembly would require anyone who photographs animal cruelty to turn the images over to the government within 48 hours — or risk being charged with a crime. The Tennessee legislature is considering a 24-hour reporting requirement.
- An Indiana measure would make it a crime — punishable by up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine — to shoot a video on a farm without the written consent of the owner. A similar bill has been proposed in Pennsylvania.
- In Arkansas, a proposed law would outlaw recording on a farm “with the purpose to cause harm to the livestock or poultry operation.”
A growing trend
Laws like these have been on the books for more than 20 years in Kansas, Montana and North Dakota, but they’ve gained momentum in a YouTube era in which activists can quickly and graphically expose questionable treatment of livestock. A Humane Society video revealing the importation of uninspected cows five years ago led to the largest beef recall in U.S. history.
This “ag-gag” legislation is a disturbing trend that undercuts Americans’ First Amendment right to gather and share information. The freedoms of speech and press are designed to give all citizens a voice, speaking out against perceived wrongs. These measures are designed to curb modern-day muckraking by preventing the recording of abuses and compelling whistle-blowers to identify themselves to the government. The quick time frame for reporting makes it impossible to document sustained abuse.
Proponents of these bills insist that they’re not trying to hide anything, but instead are ensuring the prompt reporting of animal cruelty.
Nebraska State Sen. Tyler Larson says a bill he sponsored would bar organizations such as the Humane Society “from holding documentation about animal abuse for months and then using it to create media campaigns. If they really cared about the animals, they would report abuse immediately.”
Larson’s proposal would require anyone who witnesses animal cruelty to report the mistreatment to the authorities within 24 hours. Under most of these bills, the reporting requirement kicks in only when misconduct is visually documented. In other words, it’s about the video and its potential impact on hog and cattle farming.
Overriding public interest
State laws bar trespassing, so farm owners already have a means to keep activists off the premises. And if any videos are used to actually libel a business — meaning that the video is untrue or significantly misleading — there are other recourses in the courts.
There is an overriding public interest in knowing about the quality and safety of the food we eat, starting with animals on farms. While most in the agriculture industry adhere to preparation standards, contaminated meat can sicken thousands. That means a need for greater transparency, not less. It’s a jungle out there.
This article was first published in USA Today Apr. 18.