“Ag Gag” Laws Violate Freedom of Speech
July 23, 2013 § Leave a comment
“Ag gag” laws are designed to thwart undercover investigations of animal abuse and health and safety violations on factory farms. These laws seek to criminalize whistleblowing on factory farms thereby keeping Americans from knowing where their food is coming from. Whistleblowing employees have exposed animal abuse violations on these farms include workers kicking, punching, and dragging cows, pigs, and chickens.
Only yesterday, July 22, 2013, the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court of Utah, challenging Utah’s ag gag law for violating the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. This lawsuit is the first in the nation to challenge the constitutionality of ag gag laws. Utah Code Ann. § 76-6-112 makes it illegal to obtain access to an agricultural operation under false pretenses. In addition, the Utah law makes it a misdemeanor to trespass on private property to record images or sounds of a livestock operation. The ag gag law makes it illegal to provide inaccurate information on a job application to obtain a job at the factory in order to document violations and abuses. “Utah’s law makes recording the truth about agricultural operations a crime, even for reporters investigating criminal animal abuse and violations of food safety and other laws.”
Although supporters of the law contend that ag gag laws protect property rights, the American public knows that ag gag laws are a tactic for corporate agriculture to save its profits. Why else would the industry aggressively push for legislation that makes abuse investigations illegal, instead of choosing to change to less abusive practices? As constitutional scholar and Dean of the University of California at Irvine, Erwin Chemerinksky, states “[t]he Utah law is very much directed at restricting speech, and especially particular messages. This is exactly what the First Amendment prohibits.”
Only time will tell if ALDF and PETA’s efforts will ultimately prove fruitful. In the meanwhile it seems likely that the ag gag law may not pass constitutional muster. The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech and equal protection under the law. Utah’s ag gag law is unconstitutional because it criminalizes investigative journalists and animal welfare advocates who expose cruelty at factory farms and slaughterhouses. Since the American public relies on journalists and activists to expose inhumane and unsafe food production practices in industrial facilities, a win in court will certainly advance animal law in the right direction. Journalistic exposés can lead to the enactment of animal laws. For example, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, has led to landmark laws such as the Federal Meat Inspection Act.
There is an overriding public interest in knowing about the safety and quality of the food we eat, which means that there is a need for greater transparency and more laws that protect animals, not less.