‘Ag-gag’ bills face tough row to hoe

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Tom Laskawy
Grist

Big Ag is having trouble installing its Iron Curtain. I am referring, of course, to the various “ag-gag” laws proposed in Florida, Minnesota, and Iowa that would make it illegal to produce (and, in some cases, possess) undercover videos from within factory livestock farms. The latest state legislature to pursue this dubious goal is New York’s — but the fate of ag-gaggery in other states makes success in the Empire State seem unlikely.

Florida’s bill died a few weeks ago when legislators withdrew the bill from consideration as the legislative session ended. And now the Humane Society of the United States reports that the Minnesota bill — in some ways the most egregious, not to say ridiculous — has suffered the same fate. Perhaps this will teach state legislators that self-dealing isn’t the best way to approach their jobs; several cosponsors of the bill stood to personally gain from the protection the bill offered factory farm operators.

As for Iowa, its legislative session is still going on and passage of the bill is considered a priority with Republican Gov. Terry Branstad on record as believing that such undercover videos represent “a problem that should be addressed.” According to this report in Iowa’s Globe Gazette, the major problem isn’t finding a majority to back the bill, but rather trying to get around sticky constitutional issues, specifically the concept of “prior restraint.” In America, at least, it’s very difficult to stop someone from doing something they haven’t done yet, especially when we’re talking about First Amendment issues. Iowa legislators are rewriting furiously as we speak — and I wouldn’t be surprised if they pass something just to see if it sticks.

At the same time, we also now have new evidence of the importance of this battle. A recent (and truly horrific) undercover video produced by Mercy for Animals depicting unspeakable cruelty perpetrated against calves by workers at a large-scale dairy cow breeding facility in Texas has spawned a criminal case. According to the Plainview Herald, the district attorney in Castro County, Texas (where the facility is located) has arrested not only the workers involved but, miraculously, the operation’s owner, Kirt Espenson. According to the Herald, “Investigators don’t think Espenson personally harmed any animals, but authorities say he’ll be charged for neglect.”

Indeed, the prospect of a perp walk is no doubt a major motivation for Big Ag bigwigs to back legislation that would make these kinds of undercover videos illegal. While we still don’t know what the outcome will be in Iowa, it does appear that hiding the reality of what goes on in factory farms has turned out to be a bit harder to pull off than industry executives had expected.

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