Ag-gag laws aims to muzzle journalistic efforts

Add Pennsylvania to the list of states that have enacted or are in the process of passing legislation outlawing attempts by independent reporters to document abuses in the production of food for American tables.


This subject is of particular interest to citizen and professional journalists in the Midwest, a region heavily involved in livestock and poultry production for the nation and the world. Following the pattern of voter repression initiatives, anti-union proposals and anti-abortion bills designed to weaken Roe v. Wade, this spate of special-interest legislation is marching through GOP-controlled states aimed at protecting big agribusiness from efforts to shed light on a growing tide of animal abuse.


But these alleged farm-protection bills claim more than one victim – besides animals cruelly mistreated before slaughter. As noted in a previous issue of Gateway Journalism Review (Spring 2013, volume 43, issue 330), they are a full-scale assault on the First Amendment’s protection of free speech and press, and on consumers’ right to know about the process that brings food to their dining-room tables.


The latest version of this assault comes in a proposal by Pennsylvania State Sen. Mike Brubaker, a Lancaster Republican, which would prohibit videotaping or taking pictures on farm property without permission by the owner except for the following condition in which it differs from other states’ legislation: The recording or photography must document animal abuse and must be shared with the police exclusively. Brubaker justifies the legislation by making agribusiness into a victim with the claim that farmers are “unfairly tarnished by undercover documentation,” according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s report of the proposed bill.


“This is not restricting photographs,” the senator told the newspaper of his proposal to regulate documentation of animal cruelty. “If the purpose of taking a photograph is to document inhumane treatment of animals, putting it on a social website does not get the job done. We need to ensure those photographs are properly taken on that site in question, and that true inhumane treatment of animals has been occurring on that farm. And if that’s the case, it’s law enforcement’s responsibility to prosecute that case.”


Brubaker is correct on one count: It is the responsibility of government to uphold statutes against animal abuse. But he tortures logic in his explanation regarding the benign nature of this overt attempt to regulate speech – and the fact is states simply are not enforcing animal cruelty laws when it comes to agribusiness. Putting aside the curious language of “true inhumane treatment of animals,” a few thousand pro-democracy protestors who have used social media to document government abuses in Libya, Egypt, Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East might quarrel with this dismissal of the effects and power of social media.


As for the “true inhumane treatment” cited by Brubaker, we’re not talking about cattle prods or sledgehammers to the head. One undercover video captured farm workers burning the ankles of Tennessee walking horses with chemicals, according to a report in the New York Times published this April. Another showed Wyoming workers “punching and kicking pigs and flinging piglets into the air,” the newspaper reported. In Vermont, according to an Associated Press report in March, an undercover video showed veal calves “skinned alive and tossed like sacks of potatoes,” while a video shot in California showed cows “struggling to stand as they were prodded to slaughter by forklifts,” leading to “the largest meat recall in U.S. history.”


The video of the Tennessee walking horses led to criminal charges followed by guilty pleas to the Horse Protection Act. This spring, the Tennessee Legislature passed a farm protection bill, but the governor vetoed it. The Wyoming video led to nine farm employees being charged with animal cruelty. And an undercover video that revealed hens penned next to the rotting corpses of dead chickens “while workers burn and snap off the beaks of young chicks” led to a decision by McDonald’s to stop buying birds from that particular company, the Times reported.


So this hardly is a case of ineffective social media. Instead, these videos, streamed on social media outlets and elsewhere, are examples of robust journalism that brings results in the tradition of Upton Sinclair’s “the Jungle,” a book that revealed conditions and abuses in Chicago meatpacking plants, and which led to passage of the federal Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. Sinclair was one of several muckraking journalists of the Progressive Era who used reporting techniques that included covert investigations to publicize wrongdoing. Another often-cited piece of investigative reporting of the time was done by Elizabeth Jane Cochran, who went undercover in a New York mental institution, which she entered by faking her own insanity. Writing under the pen name Nellie Bly, she produced an 1887 report for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World that led to a grand jury investigation and a substantial increase in the budget of the Department of Public Charities and Corrections.


Journalism history is filled with such exploits of firsthand reporting of society’s ills, but imagine how Sinclair’s and Cochran’s reporting would have fared had these reporters been required to give their notes to the government before publication, as these agribusiness laws and pending bills stipulate, instead of freely publishing their information without official government scrutiny. Or consider what effect similar legislation would have had on the reporting of modern-era undercover journalist Barbara Ehrenreich, whose 2001 “Nickel and Dimed” revealed living conditions of American workers trapped in menial labor.


These reports of wrongdoers caught and punished contrast starkly with an episode cited by defenders of Brubaker’s Pennsylvania legislation. These folks claim that state inspection of a Lancaster County egg farm belied Humane Society claims of animal abuse and dangerous conditions documented at the farm. The undercover video documentation of the alleged abuse, said the farm operator, “could have been shot in any house,” reported the Post-Gazette.


The Humane Society video, released April 12, 2012, revealed conditions that included severe overcrowding, mummified hen carcasses inside cages with living hens laying eggs for dining-room tables, birds dying from lack of water, and chickens with legs and heads trapped in wires and feeding machinery. Imagery such as this is of concern to ag producers in Iowa – home to the most egg farms in the United States, as well as one of the most factory farm-friendly laws in the land.


The most recent state inspection of the egg farm came after the egg farmer learned of the video. The operators of the farm were exonerated by the state’s Department of Agriculture. Agriculture Secretary George Greig, who released a statement assuring that conditions at the farm in question met industry standards, and that inspections over the previous five years had shown “high and consistent standards of flock management.”


This is the very sort of scenario imagined by Brubaker’s proposed legislation, the law enforcement authorities in this situation being the state’s agriculture overseers – metaphorical foxes guarding these chicken coops.


To be fair, Brubaker’s legislation is not as bad as some in other states, some of which put time limits on when videos must be turned over to the state, while others ban videotaping at numerous locations – including some, such as livestock markets, that are open to the public. Some of the more strict agribusiness-friendly laws are found in the conservative Midwest. A New York bill prohibits taking photos from public roads of animals in open fields.


But Brubaker’s proposal, nonetheless, is just as odorous as its legislative brethren in other states. And it’s just as unconstitutional. Videotapes and photographs are the same as a reporter’s handwritten or taped notes; they are the tools by which journalists ply their trade – and, in their exercise of free speech and free press, inform the public by fulfilling the journalist’s watchdog role.


Given any other name conjured up by Orwellian attempts to label war as peace – farm protection in this case, for example – legislation regulating speech is a form of restricting speech or photos. It is nothing less than prior restraint. Not only does such state regulation of reporting discourage the sort of oversight and regulation these undercover videos argue for, it also would punish those who want to right the wrongs revealed in such documentation.


“Whistleblowing investigations in the past few years have exposed food safety issues and rampant animal abuse on industrial factory farms in America,” Matthew Dominguez, the Humane Society’s public policy manager for the farm animal protection campaign, told the Post-Gazette. “The industry’s response to these investigations hasn’t been to clean up their act, but instead to make it illegal for you to expose the cruelty in the first place.”


The restrictions put forth by the legislative friends of the industry make victims not of the farmers, but of the American public and the democracy by violating constitutional protection of speech and press, and by chilling the prospects of an informed citizenry. Attempts to categorize this assault on constitutional free speech should be recognized, and opposed, in the courts of justice and of public opinion for what they are, rather than for the champions of free farming that their proponents claim most foully.


Steve Hallock, a former newspaper editor, is director of the School of Communication at Point Park University in Pittsburgh.

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