Our opinion: A win for local food producers


In a win for animal rights activist, a federal court struck down Idaho's ban on surreptitious filming of agricultural abuses.

U.S. Chief Judge B. Lynn Winmill of the District of Idaho struck down the state's ban on the grounds that the law violated the First Amendment and selectively targeted activists or journalists who might be critical of factory farm practices.

"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," Winmill wrote. "Audio and visual evidence is a uniquely persuasive means of conveying a message, and it can vindicate an undercover investigator or whistleblower who is otherwise disbelieved or ignored. Prohibiting undercover investigators or whistleblowers from recording an agricultural facility's operations inevitably suppresses a key type of speech because it limits the information that might later be published or broadcast."

So-called "ag-gag" laws forbid the act of undercover filming or photography of activity on farms without the consent of their owner. A number of states around the country have varieties of ag-gag bills that are meant to "protect" the "propietary" activities of factory farms and other livestock handlers. In Vermont, a law was passed in 2013 that authorized a $1,000 fine against anyone who "makes a knowingly false statement or representation as part of an application to be employed at an agricultural facility." As the Stowe reporter noted, the legislation was passed after a "number of high-profile animal abuse cases, including in Vermont, have come to light through the efforts of agricultural whistleblowers, who often pose as people who want to work on a farm, only to use the access to film abuses there."

Those who support ag-gag laws say they are meant to protect the agriculture industry from negative publicity around activities that routinely occur at livestock handling facilities, and not just illegal or unethical abuse of animals.

The Idaho law that was struck down threatened people who secretly film animal abuse with jail and fines.

"Luckily, the federal court saw through this load of manure," wrote Walter Einenkel for Daily Kos.

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As Einenkel noted, the best part of this decision is that it is the first legal push back on this issue.

According to the Associated Press, the only other similar lawsuit is in Utah, but more are likely to come after Monday's decision. Currently, eight other states have passed some sort of law against such surreptitious filming, even though many more have been introduced in state legislatures.

"This decision vindicates the public's rights to know how animals are treated before they become meat," Mathew Liebman, of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, one of the lead attorneys on the Idaho case, told the AP.

"Idaho's lawmakers should be ashamed of wasting precious time and valuable resources enacting unconstitutional laws that threaten animal welfare, food safety, workers' rights, and the environment," Nathan Runkle, president of Mercy For Animals, the animal rights group that released the 2012 footage, said in a statement.

Whether this ruling will have an impact on Vermont's legislation, or if it will be appealed, is not yet known, but it is a win for those who would seek to hold the animal agriculture industry to a standard that respects the dignity and health of all animals — whether they be porcine, bovine or avian.

But this is also a win for small, family-owned farms that strive to be responsible caretakers of the land and their animals. The more people know about how their meat is raised and slaughtered before it makes it to the dinner table, the better educated they are to make choices that are right for their families. While that slab of meat at the supermarket may be cost-effective, it may not be the best for our health, the planet or our own consciences.

We believe those who choose to continue to consume meat should always keep their purchases as local as possible. Yes, it can cost significantly more, but when you do so, you know how the animals are treated, what they are being fed and how they are being slaughtered. And more likely than not, it also gives you the opportunity to look a farmer in the eye, build a relationship with the people who produce your food and support a local business, all at the same time.


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