This article appeared in The Nation on July 31, 2013.
On February 8, a 25-year-old animal rescue worker named Amy Meyer and a colleague pulled into a parking lot across the street from the Dale T. Smith and Sons Meat Packing Company in Draper, Utah, a suburb south of Salt Lake City. They crossed the street and stepped onto a strip of public land on the roadside, stopping short of a barbed wire fence that demarcated the boundary of the property of the slaughterhouse.
Across a small field, the building housing the killing floor stood in plain sight. Through two large open doors facing the road they stood on, they could see cows being led onto the plant’s disassembly line. Outside the building, a forklift was pushing a live cow—possibly a sick, “downer” cow, which are illegal to slaughter. Despite the fact that she stood firmly on public property and was not an employee of the slaughterhouse, when Meyer took out her camera and began to film, she set herself up to become the agricultural industry’s first-ever “Ag Gag” criminal.
“Ag Gag” laws are a species of state-level legislation that has been vigorously pushed by lobbyists over the last several years to criminalize and suppress the exposure of inhumane practices in animal agricultural operations. In essence, the laws protect the industry by making whistleblowers into outlaws.
Ag Gag laws take aim at camera-wielding undercover whistleblowers, whose videos have provided some of the few unvarnished glimpses the public has seen of where their food comes from—and it’s not a pretty sight. Over the last half century, intensive, mechanized, indoor factory-style animal feeding operations have almost entirely supplanted the grazing pastures of traditional livestock farms. In processing plants, ever-increasing disassembly line speeds have increased the risks of injury to knife-wielding slaughterhouse workers, who tend to be poor, often undocumented migrants from Mexico and Central America, while compounding the risk of some animals being skinned and dismembered while still alive.
Undercover videos have exposed the ugly realities concealed behind the walls and locked gates of animal agriculture facilities and put them on the evening news. The footage is graphic; the impressions they leave are haunting and indelible. Images from past undercover investigations include unwanted male chicks on an egg farm being casually tossed into a grinder alive, workers swinging sick or runty piglets by their legs and smashing their heads on concrete, and cows and calves being beaten in the head with crowbars (the first two abuses are standard industry practice). “Once you see them, you can’t unsee them,” says Matt Rice, Director of Investigations for Mercy For Animals, who traces his own conversion to animal advocacy to undercover videos he watched over a decade ago.
Their impact on a political level can be just as powerful as on a personal one: in the last decade, videos shot by undercover investigators and broadcast on national TV news stations have contributed to the phasing-out of the use of immobilizing “gestation crates” for pregnant sows in the supply chains of several major restaurants and retailers and their outright ban in nine states; the passage of a ballot initiative outlawing the use of highly constrictive battery cages for egg-laying hens in California; the passage of a separate California law banning the force-feeding of ducks to produce foie gras; a ban on veal crates in Arizona and moves toward their elimination in Ohio; and the exposure of the routine slaughter and processing of sick cows for beef, which led to the largest meat recall in US history.
The agricultural industry’s response to this intractable public relations threat couldn’t be more straightforward: make it illegal.
The first generation of what would later be known as Ag Gag laws emerged in the early 1990s in response to a much different threat posed by underground activists with the Animal Liberation Front movement. In Kansas, Montana and North Dakota, state legislators made it a crime to take pictures or shoot video in an animal facility without the consent of the facility’s owner.
In 2002, the American Legislative Exchange Council—the conservative law-drafting organization behind Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law and Arizona’s anti-immigrant SB1070—took the approach one step further. ALEC drafted a piece of “model legislation” for distribution to lobbyists and state lawmakers across the country in an effort to make Ag Gag into a national phenomenon. The model bill, called The Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act, proposed prohibiting activists from, among other things, “entering an animal or research facility to take pictures by photograph, video camera, or other means with the intent to commit criminal activities or defame the facility or its owner.” It also proposed the creation of a “terrorist registry” that would contain the names, addresses and photographs of those convicted under the proposed law.
In the last year and a half, at the behest of animal agriculture interests, ALEC’s model bill—minus the registry—has been taken up as a template and passed in various iterations in Iowa, Utah, Missouri, Arkansas and South Carolina.
“The animal agriculture industry has nothing to hide,” says Emily Meredith, Communications Director for the Animal Agriculture Alliance, an industry group that refers to organizations like the Humane Society as “extreme animal rights organizations.” “But there’s a difference between having nothing to hide and allowing activists—with a blatant agenda to put an end to the consumption of meat, milk and eggs—to gain access to family farms in illicit and fraudulent ways, take video, and then cut and run to later release that video under a big donate now button.”
Some versions of ALEC’s bill criminalize documenting abuses outright. Some make it a crime to lie about one’s associations with animal advocacy groups on job applications for farm employment. Others require those who document abuses to turn any evidence over to law enforcement within 24-48 hours of recording it—a clever way of preventing activists from engaging in the weeks- or months-long investigations required to demonstrate systemic abuses.
Though the rules target animal advocates, the potential ramifications for civil liberties are broader. Ag Gag rules can as easily be used to inhibit agricultural employees from exposing unsafe or illegal working conditions as it can to silence animal advocates. And other industries are likely to lobby for similar protections against their own whistleblowers-in-the-making. Already, North Carolina’s bill makes the falsification of employment application information for the purposes of whistle blowing a crime in any industry.
“Union members know firsthand how important it is for these workers to be able to document unsafe working conditions and other threats to workplace and food safety,” says Mark Lauritsen, International Vice President and Director of the Packing Division for the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents many slaughterhouse employees. “We are opposed to any government intervention that seeks to intimidate workers and investigators from shining a spotlight on the true conditions of America’s food manufacturing facilities.”
“The laws are clearly directed at animal rights activists who threaten the profitability of factory farms and slaughterhouses, but their reach doesn’t stop there,” says Rachel Meeropol, Senior Staff Attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights. For example, the North Carolina bill, she notes, “would criminalize not only animal rights investigations, but also an undercover journalist who applies for a job at a suspect plant in order to expose human trafficking or work safety violations.”
As its public profile has increased, public opposition to Ag Gag legislation has grown, and the agricultural industry’s path to enacting Ag Gag rules throughout the country has become more daunting. A February 2012 national poll commissioned by the ASPCA showed public opposition to the criminalization of animal abuse whistleblowers standing at almost two in three Americans. Ag Gag bills have been rejected or failed to gain traction in a raft of states in every region of the country from California to Wyoming to Tennessee. The term “overreach” comes to mind.
Amy Meyer’s experience has become something of a symbol of that overreach, and an indicator of the limits of the agricultural industry’s ability to suppress free speech. A few minutes after Meyer hit “record” on her camera, a truck pulled up in front of her. Meyer’s colleague hastily departed. Bret Smith, the facility’s operator and brother of Darrell Smith, the slaughterhouse owner who is also Draper’s mayor, leaned over from the driver’s seat, filming her with a phone camera as she filmed him back. At first, he accused Meyer of trespassing, though she was plainly standing on the outside of the plant’s fence. Then he shifted tactics. “You cannot videotape my property from public property,” he said (this is in fact not what the law says). “If you read the rights here and the laws of Utah, you can’t film an agricultural property without my consent,” he continued. Smith called the police.
Within just a few minutes, seven squad cars pulled up. “The officers would all go to Brett Smith first and shake his hand,” Meyer recounts. “And then they would come over to me and treat me like a criminal.”
An officer questioned Meyer about her identity and what she was doing there, even after affirming that she was not being detained and after she told him she did not wish to answer his questions. After some arguing over the legal basis for his questioning, according to Meyer, the officer claimed that a worker at the slaughterhouse had reported witnessing her and her colleague crossing over the fence, trespassing onto private property—a description at odds with the footage she shot that day. The officer told her she was free to leave, but that he would “screen charges of criminal trespass” on her.
Eleven days later, prosecutors filed charges against her for “agricultural operation interference,” a Class B misdemeanor that carries a maximum six-month jail term.
At the end of April, Will Potter, a journalist who tracks government suppression of environmental and animal rights activists, broke the story of “the first prosecution in the country” under an Ag Gag law. The story was picked up by local and national media outlets, bringing just the kind of public attention to the agricultural industry that ALEC’s model legislation was designed to prevent. Within 24 hours, the charges were dropped.
Without the media attention the story garnered, Meyer may have been forced to defend herself in court. Had prosecutors pressed the case, the video footage, which is clearly shot from outside of the property line, may well have exonerated her. But future cases may have different, less favorable conditions.
On July 22, Meyer, Potter and several other groups and individuals filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Utah’s Ag Gag law, which Meyer calls “a blatant violation of free speech and freedom of the press.”
In implementing Ag Gag laws, the agricultural industry has set a highly restrictive example that other industries may soon follow. With the precedent already set, lawmakers will see little reason to extend favorable treatment to one sector and not to every other. By then, prosecuting whistleblowers on behalf of corporations will be business as usual.