Header graphic for print

Food Safety News

Breaking news for everyone's consumption

‘Ag-gag’ action moves from state houses to federal courts

ag-gag-408x250

State statutes making it impossible to get in and out of animal confinement areas without breaking the law are being challenged in at least four federal courts around the country.

Among the issues that will be explored during a federal trial in Utah scheduled for later this year is whether professional journalists should have any association with the “ends justify the means” tactics used by animal activists.

Here’s the status on the four pending cases:

  • Two trespass statutes that impose criminal and civil liabilities for unlawfully collected data from private lands about natural resources for a government agency are being challenged in U.S. District Court for Wyoming in Casper. These Wyoming laws do not follow the ordinary definition of ag-gag laws, but are being allowed to go forward as potentially violating the Petition and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment and the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment. Next up: Numerous pre-trial deadlines are set ahead of a bench trial set for July 25 before U.S. District Court Judge Scott W. Skavdahl in Casper.
  • An appeal by Idaho is pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco. Idaho lost the case, known as Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) v. Lawrence Warden, in the U.S. District Court for Idaho. U.S. District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill ruled on Nov. 12, 2015, that key elements of the Idaho ag-gag law are unconstitutional. He permanently enjoined the state from enforcing it and awarded ALDF and other animal advocacy groups almost $260,000 in attorneys fees. Next up: Idaho’s opening brief is due March 21, followed by the ADLF’s answering brief due on April 21.
  • The latest federal case to be filed is PETA et al v. Cooper et al, which is a challenge to North Carolina’s unique ag-gag law. The animal rights group filed the 58-page complaint Jan. 13. Adopted over the governor’s veto by the North Carolina Legislature, this statute also has broader applications than just animal agriculture. The plaintiffs contend it would touch  “virtually every industry, including nursing homes, factory farms, financial institutions, daycare centers and more.” In each instance, they say North Carolinians will lose their ability to know the truth about misconduct, mistreatment and corruption. Next Up: On or before April 4, Attorney General Roy Cooper is expected to ask for the case to be dismissed.
  • ADLF’s challenge to Utah’s ag-gag law, filed July 22, 2013, is set for trial in the fourth quarter this year before U.S. District Court Judge Robert J. Shelby. The 2012 Utah ag-gag law fits the traditional mold used by states since 2010. It creates a crime of “agricultural operation interference.” One of the plaintiffs is local activist Amy Meyer who was arrested, but not charged under the statute. Experts from both sides are filing testimony and could be subject to deposition prior to trial. Next up: Bench trial expected in late 2016.

Professional journalism v. pretending

Filings in the Utah case suggest the role of professional journalism might be on trial when it comes to whether these kinds of laws are ethical or whether they advance a so-caled ends-justify-the-means morality.

Amy Kristin Sanders, a former Florida editor now on faculty at Northwestern University’s Doha, Qatar, campus, is an expert for Utah. She says activist organizations like ALDF and PETA that engage in such tactics are unlike professional journalists because they practice deception, including falsifying employment applications and practicing surreptitious surveillance.

She points to the “zero-tolerance” policy of former Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee, who said it was the wrong message to young reporters everywhere to say it was right to lie to get a story or pretend to be someone you are not.

For Will Potter, an activist author, investigative journalist and TED senior fellow, the undercover work is necessary to “shine a light on animal agriculture that would otherwise be impossible to view.” Potter says he has reported on the investigations by animal protection groups like the Humane Society of the U.S., PETA, Mercy for Animals, Compassion Over Killing and the Animal Legal Defense Fund “because they have been conducted methodically and professionally.”

As the federal courts have taken up these challenges, there has been less interest by state lawmakers in the issue. Not since prior to 2010 has the the legislative action in “ag-gag” been this low.

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)

© Food Safety News