Good news for farm animals and the First Amendment

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Legislation to outlaw undercover videotaping of livestock abuse seems to be faltering in several states, the Associated Press reported June 13. That’s good news for farm animals and the First Amendment.

“A measure to punish those who make secret videos initially appeared to be sailing through the Iowa Legislature, but after clearing the state House it has sputtered out in the Senate and appears dead for this session,” The AP’s Mike Glover reported. “Similar measures also have faltered in Minnesota, Florida and New York.”

Some owners of big livestock operations have been stung by animal-welfare activists who have taken jobs at cattle ranches and at hog and chicken farms, secretly recorded abhorrently abusive treatment and conditions suffered by animals, then posted the videos online. Howls of outrage at “trespassing” and the “false pretenses” under which the activists were hired prompted legislators to introduce bills against the investigative strategy.

If livestock operators want to charge animal-welfare activists with trespass and fraud, let them. But let’s not have legislatures lard up on extra laws aimed at specific kinds of fact-gathering, restricting the free flow of information, just to protect those who feel threatened by the truth.

In Iowa, the bill “would have prohibited recordings of farm-animal treatment and punished people who take agriculture jobs only to gain access to the animals for videotaping,” AP said. Punishment? Fines of up to $7,500 and up to five years in prison.

That’s pretty stiff. Animal-welfare groups apparently thought so, too; they led the opposition that stalled these legislative efforts. “A well-managed farm has nothing to hide,” the AP quoted Emily Vaughn of Slow Food USA as saying. “It’s something that people have the right to know.”

That’s the heart of the matter. Livestock operators and lawmakers say activist-employees should be above board and report cruel practices to the farm managers, rather than post horrifying and embarrassing videos for all to see. Activists say such open and honest complaining would get them fired instantly without changing the animals’ treatment. The public, meanwhile, wants information.

I eat meat. But I want to know how farm animals live, and whether they suffer unnecessarily, so I can decide which kinds of meat to eat and which producers to buy it from. I suspect many others feel the same. Public outrage at revelations of livestock cruelty has helped foster farms that treat animals more humanely.

Some argue that preventing fraud and protecting the sanctity of private property are at stake. That was the Food Lion supermarket chain’s contention in the 1990s, after ABC News broadcast an undercover investigation of how some Food Lion stores handled food. Two “Prime Time Live” reporters got themselves hired and used hidden cameras to record unsanitary practices. Food Lion sued and won – sort of – by convincing a jury not that the journalists had misreported any facts but that they had committed fraud and trespass. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals later reduced the initial $5.5 million damage award to $2.

That ruling illustrates the occasional tension between First Amendment freedoms of speech and press and some of society’s other values. The 4th Circuit said the news media could not break the law, that the reporters were indeed guilty of trespassing and breach of employee loyalty. Yet the court also refused to countenance what it called “an end-run around First Amendment strictures” by Food Lion.

Animal-welfare advocates aren’t journalists, but in today’s world of easy image upload they can and do perform journalistic functions – assuming their productions are accurate and fair. Everywhere we see citizen-journalists with cameras recording things that authorities of every stripe in many countries don’t want people to see.

Activists with concealed cameras are in the grand tradition of Nellie Bly and other undercover reporters. In 1887, Bly faked madness to get herself committed to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum in New York City. Writing in the New York World, she exposed beatings, forced meals and other cruel treatments inflicted on patients.

Was she committing fraud? Sure. Trespassing? Yup. But the world is better off because she placed the welfare of the helpless above petty virtues.

As Humane Society spokeswoman Carol Rigelon told AP, “What we’re trying to do is expose things that might not otherwise be exposed and as a result make agriculture even better.”

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