Whether you’re a die-hard vegetarian or a committed carnivore, it’s likely you’ve seen videos floating around the Internet documenting horrific animal abuse at farms and factories. One such video, which made the rounds earlier this year, showcases terrible acts of cruelty against cows at a dairy farm in Idaho. The animals are beaten viciously with canes; workers jump on their backs as they moan in discomfort; cows are kicked in the face and dragged across the killing floor with chains wrapped around their necks. Pretty heinous stuff. The video was made by an undercover investigator working for a group called Mercy for Animals, and it made a big splash: Idaho law enforcement filed criminal animal cruelty charges against several workers and a manager at Bettencourt Dairies.
Shooting the Messenger
You’d think this wanton cruelty would result in pledges from the dairy industry in Idaho to clean up its act. But the actual response was radically different. The industry successfully lobbied the state to pass Senate Bill 1337 — a so called “ag-gag law” — which penalizes whistleblowers in the agricultural industry in that state.
The bill was signed into law by Idaho’s governor in February of this year. Under the legislation, it’s a crime, punishable by imprisonment, to take photographs or videotape abuses or unethical practices on a farm. It doesn’t just have to be animal abuse, either — it’s also illegal to document worker safety violations. sexual harassment and embezzlement.
Many States Have “Ag-Gag” Laws
This anti-whistleblower legislation isn’t native to Idaho — about a dozen other states, including Iowa, Utah and Missouri, have proposed or enacted bills that make it illegal to secretly videotape farms or even to apply for a job at one without disclosing a connection to animal rights groups.
Many of these laws are inspired by the activities of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a right-wing business advocacy group which orients itself toward limited government, free markets and federalism. Hundreds of representatives from agricultural states are members. The council exists to create model laws, drafted by lobbyists and legislators, that they hope will be copied by right-leaning lawmakers around the US. One of these model bills is called “The Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act”. It seeks to punish those who record covert footage on livestock farms by placing them on a “terrorist registry”. Such a registry doesn’t exist yet, but animal rights advocates are concerned it’s only a matter of time.
There is some good news for whistleblowers in the agricultural industry. A few ag-gag bills have died in state legislatures in New Mexico, New Hampshire and Wyoming. It seems that along with a juicy steak, people in these states also savor the freedom of speech conferred by the First Amendment.