Gag­ging in­ves­ti­ga­tors

Antelope Valley Press (Sunday) - - Opinion -

Record­ing events from pub­lic land shouldn’t be a crime.

Yet when a woman in Utah, stand­ing by a pub­lic road, filmed farm­work­ers push­ing a cow with a bull­dozer, the farmer drove up to her and said, “You can­not video­tape my prop­erty.”

Soon the po­lice came and lo­cal pros­e­cu­tors charged her with “agri­cul­tural op­er­a­tion in­ter­fer­ence.”

They dropped the charges sev­eral months later since she was on pub­lic land.

But what if she’d posed as a farm­worker, got a job on the farm and then se­cretly recorded what she saw?

In­creas­ingly, ac­tivists do that. More than a hun­dred such un­der­cover in­ves­ti­ga­tions have been done.

They then dis­trib­ute video that some­times shows an­i­mals be­ing cru­elly abused. In my video this week, we see calves be­ing hit, kicked and thrown.

Farm­ers, up­set about such record­ings, are now ask­ing politi­cians to out­law them, and sev­eral state leg­is­la­tures have obliged. They’ve passed “ag-gag” laws — bans on sneak­ing onto farms to se­cretly record what they see.

Kay John­son Smith of the An­i­mal Agri­cul­ture Al­liance sup­ports such laws, though she doesn’t use the term “ag-gag.”

“We call it ‘ farm pro­tec­tion,’” she told me. “Ac­tivists stalk farms to try to cap­ture some­thing that the pub­lic doesn’t un­der­stand. The agri­cul­tural com­mu­nity is the only busi­ness where this sort of tac­tic is re­ally be­ing used.”

Smith says the ac­tivists’ real agenda is not just pre­vent­ing cru­elty to an­i­mals: “Th­ese ac­tivist groups want to elim­i­nate all of an­i­mal agri­cul­ture.”

I be­lieve her. Many ac­tivists are an­i­mal rights ex­trem­ists.

But I also worry that laws like ag-gag rules will stop peo­ple from re­veal­ing abuses. I’m an in­ves­tiga­tive re­porter. I can’t do my job well if laws pre­vent me from show­ing the abuse. Au­di­ences of­ten won’t be­lieve what I re­port if they can’t see it for them­selves.

Videos made by the group Mercy for An­i­mals have led to crim­i­nal charges. Some of their in­ves­ti­ga­tions led Wal­mart to cre­ate new pur­chas­ing poli­cies.

The An­i­mal Le­gal De­fense Fund claims ag-gag laws vi­o­late the First Amend­ment. They’ve suc­ceeded in get­ting sev­eral states’ ag-gag laws struck down.

When Iowa’s law was ruled un­con­sti­tu­tional, leg­is­la­tors sim­ply re­placed it with a nar­rower law that for­bids ac­tivists to lie to get ac­cess to farms.

The ac­tivists ar­gue that be­cause farms lie about their prac­tices, the only way to re­veal the truth is to lie to get onto farms.

Ac­tivists sim­ply “want to en­sure that the Amer­i­can pub­lic knows how th­ese foods are pro­cessed, what hap­pens to an­i­mals,” says An­i­mal Le­gal De­fense Fund lawyer Amanda How­ell.

“You’ve got tens of thou­sands of an­i­mals in ware­houses stand­ing on con­crete floors never see­ing the light of day. ... If that af­fects peo­ple’s pur­chas­ing de­ci­sions, then there’s a rea­son for it,” says How­ell.

“They want to make their movie ... their sen­sa­tional video,” re­torts Smith. “If they re­ally cared about an­i­mals, they would stop it right then! In­stead, they go weeks and months with­out re­port­ing any­thing to the farm own­ers.” That’s of­ten true. Ac­tivists say long-term in­ves­ti­ga­tions are nec­es­sary be­cause oth­er­wise “a com­pany can say this is a one-off,” says How­ell. Long-term in­ves­ti­ga­tions “show that’s some­thing that hap­pens ev­ery day.”

I took that ar­gu­ment to Smith.

“What they re­ally want is to stop peo­ple from eat­ing meat, milk and eggs,” she said. “There are bad ap­ples in ev­ery in­dus­try, (but) 99.9% of farm­ers in Amer­ica, they do the right thing ev­ery sin­gle day. Farm­ing isn’t al­ways pretty.”

I asked How­ell if she and her group do want to end all con­sump­tion of meat and eggs. It’s funny watch­ing her re­sponse on the video. She never gives a straight an­swer.

But her eva­sions bother me less than cor­po­ra­tions us­ing politi­cians to cen­sor their crit­ics.

What­ever you think of the ac­tivists — and I have prob­lems with many of them — gov­ern­ment shouldn’t pass spe­cial laws that pre­vent peo­ple from re­veal­ing what’s true.

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