On August 3, 2015, District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill struck down Idaho’s ag-gag law. The law was enacted in 2014 in response to dairy farmers’ outcry that animal welfare groups were affecting their $2.5 billion industry. This was after an investigation revealed extreme abuses at Bettencourt Dairies, a Burger King supplier.
In the landmark decision, Judge Winmill stuck down the law, finding that it violates the First Amendment because it punishes individuals who speak on topics that are of great concern to our society. He also found that the law violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which protects certain groups of citizens from being singled out under the law. He noted that the legislative history of the law revealed that some supporters of the bill compared animal rights activists to terrorists, persecutors and vigilantes, while others accused animal rights groups of fabricating issues in order to attack agricultural facilities and generate donations. The purpose for adopting this legislation was primarily in order to stifle animal welfare initiatives, which was a prohibited purpose.
While the state argued that the ag-gag law was enacted to protect the privacy of agricultural facility owners rather than to suppress free speech, Judge Winmill determined that agricultural operations are far from a private matter, as food quality and worker safety are of public concern, especially since this law criminalized journalists and longtime employees who document food and environmental safety concerns, workers’ rights violations and employee abuse if they were documented without the consent of the facilities’ owners.
This decision, which is likely to be appealed, will impact other state ag-gag laws, such as the one passed in Wyoming earlier this year. Another lawsuit is pending which challenges the constitutionality of Utah’s ag-gag law.
Take action to prevent these bills from becoming law
Several new pieces of legislation have been introduced—and already passed—in states across the country to prevent activists or whistleblowers from exposing the abuse of animals in “agriculture facilities.” These bills would make it universally unlawful to record sounds or images in places where animals are raised or kept for food production, as well as in some laboratories. Most bills also make it unlawful to take a job at a facility with the intent to document abuse.
These bills, dubbed “ag-gag” bills because they seek to silence efforts to expose animal abuse at agricultural facilities, are motivated by the recent success of groups such as Compassion Over Killing, Mercy for Animals and the Humane Society of the United States, all of whom place undercover activists in facilities to document abuse.
During the past few years, criminal charges were brought against numerous factory farming operations. Charges were brought against the North Carolina Butterball facility after a recording showed turkeys being violently kicked and thrown and having their wings pulled by employees. An undercover investigator documented workers beating and whipping cows at Winchester Dairy in New Mexico, which supplies milk for Leprino cheese (a supplier for Pizza Hut, Domino’s and Papa John’s). A hidden camera revealed abuses towards laying hens at Sparboe Farms in Iowa, Minnesota, and Colorado, including workers maliciously torturing animals, dead birds in cages along with live laying hens, and employees throwing live birds into plastic bags to suffocate. A hidden video at Central Valley Meat Co., a slaughterhouse in Hanford, California that supplies meat for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National School Lunch Program and other federal food initiatives, documented egregious inhumane treatment, improper slaughter methods and intentional cruelty to sick and injured cows. The violations at this facility were so egregious that it was temporarily shut down by the USDA.
While the agricultural industry has long received protection from prosecution for acts of cruelty to animals on the grounds that the alleged abuse is actually “standard agricultural practices,” these videotapes show that the level of cruel and abusive behavior being exposed is anything but “standard.” The response to these exposés is simple: punish the people documenting the abuse instead of the people perpetrating the actual abuse.
In February 2013, Amy Meyer became the first person in the country prosecuted under a state ag-gag law, a newly-adopted law in Utah. Meyer was charged after she was observed videotaping operations at the Dale Smith Meatpacking Company from a road outside the facility. Charges were later dropped because of public outrage. Charges filed against four individuals in 2014 under the Utah law were also dropped when it was clear that no trespass occurred.
In 2014, six state ag-gag bills were introduced. Two bills, one in Idaho and one in Indiana, passed. But with a new legislative session comes new bills that need your help to be defeated. So far, Wyoming and North Carolina have passed ag-gag laws this year. That is more than enough! Three additional bills died in committee, which brings an end to ag-gag legislation for 2015.
Take action to OPPOSE any bills that would criminalize conduct intended to expose animal abuse by animal enterprises. NAVS will continue to track, report on and take action against any such legislation.
Colorado: SB 42—Update: Postponed indefinitely; died at end of the session
Requires mandatory reporting of animal abandonment, mistreatment or neglect within 48 hours of its discovery. This bill is problematic because undercover investigations at agricultural facilities generally take much longer to obtain sufficient documentation to show systemic abuse.
New Mexico: SB 221—Update: Died in committee at the end of the session
Requires a person who has made a video recording documenting livestock abuse to submit the unedited recording to law enforcement agency within 24 hours of the recording being made or else face misdemeanor charges.
North Carolina: HB 405—UPDATE: Approved after overriding Governor’s veto, June 4, 2015
Expands civil remedies for “interference with property,” giving property owners the right to recover damages from an individual who works as an employee and “who…without authorization records images or sound occurring within an employer’s premises and uses the recording to breach the person’s duty of loyalty to the employer.”
Washington: H 1104—UPDATE: Died in Committee at the end of the session
Creates a new crime for “interference with agricultural production” and would also make a defendant liable for double damages due to a facility’s economic loss that results from “interference.”
Wyoming: SF 12—UPDATE: Signed into law on March 10, 2015
Creates a separate crime for trespass on private land to unlawfully collect “resource data” on land use, which includes agriculture, animal habitats or animal species. Any pictures taken would be inadmissible as evidence of animal abuse and the accused could be sentenced to jail time and charged a $5,000 fine.