A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

When It’s a Crime to Expose a Crime

Confined-animal-feeding-operation-072513“It has nothing to do with animals,” said Utah state senator David Hinkins. The cattle-ranching, race-horse breeding legislator was defending Utah’s “ag-gag” law, which makes it a crime for anyone to expose cruelty to animals at factory farms.

“It’s people trespassing on farms. If people can sneak onto anybody’s property, then we don’t have any rights.”

And what right is it, exactly, Senator, that you feel is threatened? The right, from what we’ve seen, to kick, beat and drag sentient creatures to death. 

In Utah, taking a photo of cruelty to animals is a violation of property rights.The senator’s outrage is precipitated by the fact that a woman who was standing on a public sidewalk in Draper, Utah, saw something horrible happening to the cows through the barbed wire fence of a factory farm, and took photos of it.

Amy Meyer was promptly arrested for violating the state’s new law. But the charges were dropped since she wasn’t actually on the property of the Dale Smith Meatpacking Company. If she’d been leaning through the fence, she could be in prison by now.

Either way, as far as the senator is concerned (and all the other “legislators”, including the owner of the factory farm, who also happens to be the mayor of Draper), it’s all about their property rights.

And the cows are simply pieces of their property. These living creatures have no rights of their own. They exist simply to service the business needs of the mayor and the crony capitalist economy that prospers because of the hand-in-glove relationship between local business and local government.

“It has nothing to do with animals,” as the senator says. It’s all about the senator and his personal rights as a rancher.

To some of us, this is reminiscent of the situation, little more than 150 years ago, when other pieces of living “property” existed purely to service the business interests of the tobacco, sugar, cotton and other plantations, and when anyone who interfered was considered to be violating “property rights.”

This week, the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), along with other animal protection groups, filed suit in federal court challenging the validity of Utah’s ag-gag law. “The Utah law is very much directed at restricting speech. This is exactly what the First Amendment prohibits.”

“We have the right to bring animal cruelty to light and will not allow politicians or industry insiders to violate these rights,” said Stephen Wells, executive director of the ALDF.

Many legal experts agree.

“The Utah law is very much directed at restricting speech, and especially particular messages,” said constitutional scholar Erwin Chemerinksy of the University of California at Irvine. “This is exactly what the First Amendment prohibits.”

Mother Jones magazine has a major article on the topic of the ag-gag laws, with the sub-head: “Horrific abuse. Rampant contamination. And the crime is…exposing it?” It details some of the horrors that have been exposed by undercover video – much of it produced by Mercy for Animals, the Humane Society of the U.S. and PETA.

Mother Jones describes some of the horrors that have been documented on these videos:

In perhaps the most disturbing sequence, a worker demonstrated the method for eutha­nizing underweight piglets: taking them by the hind legs and smashing their skulls against the concrete floor—a technique known as ‘thumping.’ Their bloodied bodies were then tossed into a giant bin, where video showed them twitching and paddling until they died, sometimes long after.

And the crime is exposing it.

The article outlines some of the history leading up to these new ag-gag laws. Ten years ago, for example, the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) lobbying group sent Congress a piece of proposed legislation called the Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act.

Like so many bills drafted by the free-market think tank, AETA was handed over, ready made, to legislators with the idea that it could be introduced in statehouses across the country with minimal modification. Under the measure, it would become a felony (if damages exceed $500) to enter “an animal or research facility to take pictures by photograph, video camera, or other means,” and, in a flush of Patriot Act-era overreaching, those convicted of making such recordings would also be placed on a permanent “terrorist registry.”

A modified version was passed unanimously by the U.S. Senate, and the original version became the basis for various states moving ahead with their ag-gag laws. As the new bills came before state legislators, watchdog groups practically gasped at what they were seeing:

“It’s absurd,” said Amanda Hitt at the Government Accountability Project. She said she couldn’t believe that an industry that has been so regularly recorded breaking the law “would then have the audacity to come to any state legislative body and say, ‘Hey, we’re sick of getting caught doing crimes. Could you do us a favor and criminalize catching us?'”

But that’s exactly what happened. Animal protection groups like the ALDF are pulling out the stops to stem the tide of legislation around the country. But they’re up against major money interests.

A good summary of states who are passing or have passed ag-gag laws in an attempt to stop investigators taking video of the horrors of slaughterhouses and factory farms can be found at Green Is the New Red.

The Mother Jones article is here.