No surprise that Idaho’s ban on undercover surveillance was overturned; the law ran afoul of the First Amendment, so it was an easy call for the court. But there’s a serious lesson to be learned.
A federal judge has lifted the ban on undercover surveillance inside meat plants and livestock facilities in the state of Idaho. U.S. District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill ruled on Monday that Idaho’s “ag gag” law violated the plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights to free speech.
“An agricultural facility’s operations that affect food and worker safety are not exclusively a private matter,” the judge wrote. “Food and worker safety are matters of public concern.”
Members of Idaho’s dairy industry spearheaded a bill in the state legislature last year that effectively criminalized attempts at capturing undercover video footage in agricultural facilities. As most industry participants remember, the Idaho law was prompted by the release of a video made by an operative for Mercy for Animals that purported to show workers at Bettencourt Dairies, Idaho’s largest dairy farm dragging and beating and shocking cows.
The video evidence led to criminal charges of animal cruelty against several employees and one of the farm’s managers. In response, state dairy operators, who labeled the stunt as an attempt to damage agricultural businesses in the state, rallied state legislators to pass a law making it a crime to film inside agricultural facilities, and in 2014 Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter signed it into law.
A coalition of animal activists, civil-rights groups and media organizations petitioned in federal district court to overturn the ban on the grounds that it impeded citizens’ exercise of free speech.
Winmill agreed, ruling that the law violated the First Amendment and the equal protection clause because it was motivated by animus towards animal activist groups.
A remedy too far
There is a lesson here, an important one, for the industry.
First of all, the penalties prescribed in the Idaho law were severe: Up to a year in jail and a substantial fine upon conviction. That makes it easy for opponents to demonize what were good intentions on the part of many legislators to protect a vital business sector in the state.
Second, several lawmakers really took things over the top during legislative debates, calling the activists “farm terrorists,” which is probably accurate, but also claiming that people who make undercover videos are no different from the marauders in ancient history who destroyed their enemies’ crops to starve them into submission.
Really? That’s a fanciful description, at best, and was correctly perceived by the court as evidence that lawmakers were less concerned about protecting property and more intent on punishing activists.
I get it that owners of farms and other facilities who get hit with the bad publicity from a nasty, negative video that goes viral want nothing more than to strike back at the perpetrators. But the kind of hyperbole uttered by more than one legislator practically begs for judicial review, and Winmill appeared only too happy to oblige.
“The effect of the statute will be to suppress speech by undercover investigators and whistleblowers concerning topics of great public importance, the safety of the public food supply, the safety of agricultural workers, the treatment and health of farm animals, and the impact of business activities on the environment,” he wrote.
Along with the constitutional question, the court noted that existing laws prohibiting trespassing, fraud, theft and defamation are already on the books to protect the dairy industry from illegal intrusion, without infringing on free speech. It was an unpleasant, if not inaccurate, reminder to industry.
Worst of all, rushing to pass a restrictive, retaliatory law that subsequently gets slapped down in court allows activists to benefit from the impact of their slimy videos and the resulting media coverage of the court ruling in their favor.
As Matt Rice, director of investigations for Mercy for Animals, told the Los Angeles Times, “This is a huge victory not only for the Constitution, but [for] animals and consumers,” he said. “The law was an attempt to sweep evidence of animal abuse, food-safety problems, environmental violations and other crimes under the rug and keep them hidden from public view.”
Both of those claims are bogus.
Passing an overreaching law that gets overturned in court and generates mountains of bad publicity isn’t a victory for consumers, nor were any reputable dairy operators intent on covering up animal abuse or environmental violations.
The takeaway from this entire affair is straightforward: No one in the business of animal agriculture can tolerate even momentary incidents in which best practices for animal handling are ignored or violated.
Everyone in the industry these days understands that the challenge of assuring worker safety and maintaining operational sanitation require not only clearly communicated standards and practices, but daily diligence by everyone from senior management to line supervisors to the hourly employees themselves.
Proper animal care requires nothing less, and when some fool wearing a hidden videocam can capture footage of abusive behavior toward livestock just by hanging around with the camera running, there’s a better remedy than punishing the observer.
It’s called training the work force.
Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator