Over several weeks in 2012, an animal rights activist secretly filmed workers at an Idaho dairy farm kicking and punching cows in the head, jumping up and down on their backs, sexually abusing one, and dragging another behind a tractor by its neck. The Mercy for Animals-made video—one of roughly 80 that activists say they've recorded over the past decade—prompted the owners of Bettencourt Dairies to fire five workers and install cameras in their barns to prevent future abuses. A police investigation, meanwhile, ended with three of the fired employees charged with animal cruelty. It was a clear victory for those groups that have made it their mission to expose animal cruelty and criminal wrongdoing on modern American farms.
It will also be their last, if the agriculture industry and its allies in state government have their way.
Earlier this year, Idaho became at least the seventh state to pass a law aimed specifically at thwarting such undercover investigations, and roughly a dozen similar bills are currently winding their way through statehouses around the country. While the specifics vary, so-called ag-gag laws generally make it illegal to covertly record animal abuse on farms, or to lie about any ties to animal rights groups or news organizations when applying for a farm job. Idaho’s law is the strictest of those currently on the books. It threatens muckrakers with up to a year in jail and fines up to $5,000—a sentence, it should be noted, that’s the same as what someone convicted of animal abuse faces.
The laws specifically target animal rights groups like the Humane Society of the United States, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and similar organizations that have increasingly turned to clandestine video in their battle with Big Ag. But the way many of the laws are tailored, they also could ensnare journalists, whistleblowers, and even unions in their legal net, in the process raising serious concerns about the legal impact on everything from free speech to food safety. A wide-ranging coalition of organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Food Safety, has joined animal rights groups in challenging the Idaho law, along with a similar one in Utah, in federal court. The lawsuits also have the backing of the Government Accountability Project, the AFL-CIO, and a host of media organizations, including NPR.
“They can dress these laws up however they want, but ultimately the rationale here is pretty clearly self-interest on the part of the industry,” says Michael McFadden, the general counsel at Farm Forward, an advocacy group that’s leading the charge against such laws. The industry and their statehouse allies don’t necessarily disagree. State Sen. Jim Patrick, a lead sponsor of the Idaho legislation and a farmer himself, explained the rationale behind his bill: “It’s not designed to cover up animal cruelty, but we have to defend ourselves.”
The way Patrick and his like-minded colleagues see things, farmers in their state are under attack by activists who will stop at nothing to paint what happens on factory farms in the worst possible light. “Terrorism has been used by enemies for centuries to destroy the ability to produce food and the confidence in food safety,” the Idaho Republican told his fellow lawmakers while advocating for his bill several months ago. He struck a similar note during our conversation, comparing groups like Mercy for Animals, which has made a name for itself legally capturing wrongdoing on camera, with more extreme groups like the Earth Liberation Front, an eco-terrorist organization known for setting fire to ski resorts and lumber mills.