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Exposing animal cruelty is not a crime

By Will Potter
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 1559 GMT (2359 HKT)
Chickens raised in a battery cage farm are crammed together. Animal rights groups say factory farming of animals is cruel.
Chickens raised in a battery cage farm are crammed together. Animal rights groups say factory farming of animals is cruel.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • "Ag-gag" laws make it illegal to photograph or videotape animal cruelty on factory farms
  • Will Potter: These videos have exposed horrific animal cruelty and resulted in convictions
  • Potter: The laws turn news gathering and whistle-blowing into crimes
  • Potter: Ag gag is industry's attempt to keep consumers from knowing what they're buying

Editor's note: Will Potter is a journalist and TED Fellow based in Washington. He is the author of "Green Is the New Red: An Insider's Account of a Social Movement Under Siege." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- If "The Jungle" were published today, muckraking journalist Upton Sinclair would probably release photos from his undercover investigation of Chicago meatpacking plants on Flickr and upload video to YouTube. His work would be shared thousands of times on Facebook by outraged consumers. And all of this could land him in court, and even prison, under new laws being passed across the country today.

"Ag-gag" legislation -- so-called because it gags animal abuse whistle-blowers -- makes it illegal to photograph or videotape animal cruelty on factory farms and slaughterhouses. In the last few years, these laws have passed in Iowa, Utah, Missouri, and Idaho, and more may be on the way.

Will Potter
Will Potter

The legislation is the agriculture industry's response to undercover video investigations that exposed horrific animal cruelty. In Idaho, for instance, a group called Mercy for Animals filmed workers at Bettencourt Dairies punching and kicking cows in the face. The investigation resulted in criminal convictions for animal cruelty. But the dairy industry's response was not to clean up its act -- it was to outlaw the footage. The Idaho Dairymen's Association drafted Idaho's new "ag-gag" law in response to the Bettencourt investigation; undercover video, the group says, results in "media persecution" and "potential financial ruin."

One ag-gag supporter, industry group Protect the Harvest, has a website devoted to fighting "extremists like the Humane Society." In Idaho, lawmakers called undercover investigators terrorists and vigilantes. The bill's sponsor, state Sen. Jim Patrick, said the whistle-blowers are like "marauding invaders."

In Utah, Sen. David Hinkins said ag-gag was needed to stop "the vegetarian people" who are "trying to kill the animal industry." The co-owner of Iowa's MowMar Farms -- where workers were recorded beating pigs with metal pipe -- called the video "the 9/11 event of animal care in our industry." Rhetoric like this is meant to make people afraid of nonviolent undercover investigators and to distract us from the real issue.

The truth is that it doesn't matter if you are a meat eater or one of "the vegetarian people," ag-gag laws affect all of us. These laws are an attempt to keep consumers in the dark about what they are buying, and they do that by turning whistle-blowers and journalists into criminals.

I am a plaintiff in two lawsuits, in Utah and Idaho, challenging ag-gag laws as unconstitutional. I joined these lawsuits, as a journalist, because ag-gag directly puts both my sources and me at risk.

Sixteen professional journalism organizations have written an amicus brief to the court about concerns. The Society of Professional Journalists, NPR, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and others noted that ag-gag "poses a substantial risk of criminalizing lawful -- and constitutionally protected -- news gathering activity."

Ag-gag laws put journalists in the cross hairs in three ways:

The fight to end factory farming

They criminalize news gathering. Journalists have long gone undercover to get the story, dating back to Nellie Bly getting herself committed to the Women's Lunatic Asylum in New York around 1887 so she could expose neglect and abuse for Joseph Pulitzer's New York World. Today, Utah's ag-gag law targets anyone who accesses a farm under "false pretenses," and also anyone who "applies for employment at an agricultural operation with the intent to record an image of, or sound from, the agricultural operation."

Idaho's law has similar restrictions against photography and also says it's a crime if someone "obtains records of an agricultural production facility."

Ag-gag laws create harsher penalties for critics. In his best-selling book "Eating Animals," Jonathan Safran Foer admits entering a farm illegally to see conditions there after his requests to visit were repeatedly denied. He says undercover investigations "are one of the only meaningful windows the public has into the imperfect day-to-day running of factory farms and industrial slaughterhouses." Trespassing is against the law, and journalists aren't exempt from that. Under ag-gag, though, trespassing with the intent to expose wrongdoing results in stiffer penalties.

Ag-gag turns sources into criminals. Factory farm investigations have been reported by the top media outlets in the country, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and CNN, but the journalists didn't do the investigations themselves -- nonprofit groups did.

Undercover animal abuse videos could soon be outlawed

As ag-gag becomes law, more and more investigators say they are afraid to talk to journalists about their work. Some ag-gag bills even require investigators to turn over all footage to police and make it illegal to give it to the press. These stories need to be told, but by telling them journalists put both themselves and their sources at risk.

Jane Velez-Mitchell: Factory meat, cruel and bad for us

If the industry has its way, the only insight into the agriculture industry will come from the industry itself. This industry needs more windows and more sunlight exposing its abuses. It's time to overturn ag-gag laws so we can have an informed and vibrant national discussion about modern industrial agriculture, one that, were Upton Sinclair around today, would make him proud.

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