Landmark “Ag Gag” Lawsuit Filed to Protect Freedom of Speech 5

By Stephen Wells

Editor’s Note: Today the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) filed suit to overturn Utah’s Ag Gag law. In his April 27 EarthDesk post, contributor David Cassuto wrote about the Draconian state laws, such as Utah’s, that, variously, classify as terrorists those who expose animal cruelty, make it illegal to be a whistle blower at an agricultural or meat processing facility, obstruct journalists from reporting about animal abuse, criminalize the videotaping of a CAFO while standing on a public road, and more.  As David wrote, “You can’t make this stuff up.”

Executive director Stephen Wells walks us through the ALDF lawsuit and the dark world of a Utah law that cripples civil liberties, and punishes free speech to hide Big Agriculture from public view. This post also appears on the ALDF blog site. The full ALDF news release is here.  More on Stephen at the end of the post. — John Cronin

In Salt Lake City, the Animal Legal Defense Fund and PETA are filing an historic lawsuit that challenges the constitutionality of “ag gag” laws. Undercover investigations have revealed the dark world of animal abuse and health and safety violations on factory farms—such as workers kicking, punching, and dragging cows, pigs, and chickens.  These investigations have resulted in criminal convictions, national meat recalls, plant closures, and civil lawsuits— all of which makes undercover investigations and reporting an absolute necessity for protecting animals and public health and safety.

By GULLI.ver at de.wikipedia, [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], from Wikimedia Commons

But corporate agriculture sees such exposure 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. Many states have passed such laws and more are pending. Imagine if childcare facilities were able to keep their secrets behind closed doors, or if restaurants were able to hide their kitchens. Now imagine someone documented and reported that child abuse or those health threats; would the law would turn on themfor prosecution? That’s exactly what ag gag laws seek to do.

ALDF and PETA’s groundbreaking lawsuit challenges Utah Code Ann. § 76-6-112, enacted last year, for violating the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech and equal protection under the law. Utah’s law makes it illegal to obtain access to an agricultural operation under false pretenses, such as providing inaccurate information on a job application, which is one of the ways that investigative reporters document violations and abuses.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PhTdLbI8caQ

Utah’s law also makes it illegal to apply for a job at a factory farm with the intent to conduct an unauthorized undercover investigation and to document abuses. That is why the Animal Legal Defense Fund, along with PETA, is filing this lawsuit and is representing plaintiffs including journalists Will Potter and Jesse Fruhwirth; Daniel Hauff, an undercover investigations consultant specializing in factory farms; the political journal CounterPunch; and professor James McWilliams, as plaintiffs along with Salt Lake City resident Amy Meyer.

Amy made headlines this spring when she became the first person in the nation to be prosecuted under an ag gag law. After videotaping animal abuse at a slaughterhouse in Utah from a public road, Amy was charged under Utah’s ag gag law. The state dismissed her case without prejudice, however, when it was discovered she was on public land—and when the public became outraged over her unjust charges.

Journalistic exposés of the meat industry, such as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, have led to landmark laws such as the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act. These laws help protect the public from “mad cow” disease and meat contaminated with E. coli and salmonella. Investigations also consistently reveal severe and illegal animal cruelty, like animals being beaten, kicked, maimed, and thrown against walls.

The American public relies on journalists and activists to expose inhumane and unsafe food production practices in industrial facilities. Our Constitution grants us the right to bring animal cruelty to light. Concerns over the constitutionality of ag gag laws recently caused Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam to veto a proposed ag gag law in that state. The Tennessee Attorney General called that state’s proposed law “constitutionally suspect.” We cannot allow politicians to violate our rights so they can protect the financial interests of their corporate agriculture backers in covering up dangerous and cruel practices.

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Stephen Wells is the executive director of the Animal Legal Defense Fund. For six years (until 2006), Steve founded and served as the director of ALDF’s successful Animal Law Program, which provides support and resources to ALDF’s law professional and law student members and pro bono opportunities for attorneys and firms to assist ALDF with its mission. Prior to joining ALDF in 1999, Steve served as the executive director of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance in Anchorage where he became known for his work to protect Alaska’s wildlife, particularly wolves and bears, and its unique wild places. For Stephen’s complete bio go here.