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Landmark Lawsuit Challenges 'Ag-Gag' Law

Animal welfare groups, individuals start legal fight against 'unconstitutional' Utah law that gags reporters and whistleblowers from documenting abuse

Andrea Germanos

A group of animal rights groups and advocates filed a landmark lawsuit on Monday challenging Utah's "ag-gag" law as an unconstitutional attack on free speech and freedom of the press that criminalizes whistleblowers while shielding corporate agriculture.

The state's 2012 law criminalizes a person that records sounds or images from a livestock operation or applies for a job at a livestock operation with the intent to make such recordings; in other words, it prohibits documenting animal abuse.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), which joins PETA, CounterPunch, animal rights advocate Amy Meyer, journalist Will Potter, Professor James McWilliams and animal investigation consultant Daniel Hauff in the lawsuit, states that

corporate agriculture sees [the recording of animal abuse] as a threat to profits. Rather than change to less abusive practices it has instead chosen to keep the public uninformed by aggressively pushing for legislation that makes such investigations illegal– a classic case of shooting the messenger. The laws are designed to thwart the collection of evidence of wrongdoing, thereby “gagging” reporters and whistleblowers from exposing the facts. It’s an incredible abuse of power and public trust.

Meyer was the first person in the nation charged under ag-gag laws after she filmed a slaughterhouse from a public road. Charges were soon dropped, but the law stands in Utah and other states as well.  The Salt Lake Tribune reports that Stewart Gollan of the Utah Legal Clinic, part of the legal team representing the group,

said that other states, largely through the efforts of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, have adopted similar laws that limit scrutiny of industries that are the subject of public debate; in addition to agriculture, that has included mining operations, he said.

The suit against the Utah law is the first legal challenge to one of the nation's ag-gag laws. 

As food writer Jill Richardson points out, animal "abuse isn’t the only issue at stake – so is food safety."  She writes:

Remember that horrible video of slaughterhouse employees kicking sick cows, prodding them with forklifts, and even applying electric shocks? The cows were too sick to go into the human food supply — they represented a risk of mad cow disease — and the heinous acts in the video were done by employees trying to make the cows stand up long enough to pass their USDA inspection.

Green Is the New Red author Will Potter explains that

Utah’s law, and others like it, directly place both me and my sources at risk. There’s a long history of investigative journalism in this country based on exactly the type of research and whistleblowing that these laws criminalize. What if Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle were released today, accompanied by a YouTube video? He would undoubtedly be prosecuted under ag-gag.

Even if journalists themselves escape prosecution, ag-gag laws would make it impossible to report stories that are vitally important to the public. Whistleblowers and undercover investigators shine a light on criminal activity, and also standard industry practices. Without them, there is no meaningful window into animal agriculture; there would be no insight into the industry except for what the industry approves.

It should come as no surprise, then, that ag-gag laws are expanding to other industries. A bill pending in North Carolina right now is called the Commerce Protection Act. It doesn’t just criminalize those who blow the whistle on ag industry abuses– it includes all industries, from factory farming to fracking.

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