Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., April 21, 22 or 23
In some states, E coli, salmonella and a whole host of food-related problems might go unreported where there’s an “ag gag.”
“Following the pattern of voter repression initiatives, anti-union proposals and anti-abortion bills, this special-interest legislation is marching through GOP-controlled states aimed at protecting big agribusiness from efforts to shed light on a growing tide of animal abuse,” wrote Steve Hallock in Gateway Journalism Review.
Designed to discourage whistleblowers, journalists and other truth-tellers by criminalizing fact-gathering, this suppression legislation is prior restraint, critics say.
Amanda Hitt from the Government Accountability Project’s Food Integrity Campaign said the trend is like chronic lawbreakers saying, “Hey, we’re sick of getting caught doing crimes. Could you do us a favor and criminalize catching us?”
Ag-gag laws have been enacted in Iowa, Missouri and seven other states; five other states have pending ag-gag legislation.
Once called “agriculture disparagement” or “veggie libel” statutes, the ag-gag label is credited to New York Times writer Mark Pittman’s 2011 usage (although I used it in 1996 in a cover story for Western Illinois Press Review, and probably heard it from others).
In Illinois, the Animal Registration under False Pretenses Act, which criminalized getting unauthorized access to an animal facility, was repealed last year. Also last year, State Sen. Chapin Rose (R-Champaign) sponsored a similar measure, which passed in the Senate but died in the House. His SB 1532 would have criminalized complaining about a person or entity if it was “unfounded and made with the intent to harass the person or entity,” but it hasn’t been revived, according to a legislative aide
Twenty-four years ago, State Sen. Todd Sieben (R-Geneseo) sponsored a measure that would have criminalized any published or broadcast criticism of a farm product or producer that later proved to be erroneous. Arguably, it could have made it impossible to fully cover topics ranging from hormone usage in dairy cattle, herbicide runoff and genetically modified crops to huge confinement operations, ethanol subsidies or even commodity price analysis.
Based on model language drafted by ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council), backed by the right-wing Koch brothers, the federal Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act of 2006 (AETA) prohibits anyone from engaging in conduct “for the purpose of damaging or interfering with the operations of an animal enterprise.” Passed during the Bush administration with support from the pharmaceutical industry, it exploited the FBI’s 2004 designation of environmental and animal-right groups as “terror threats,” equating whistle-blowing with terrorism.
The Center for Constitutional Rights is suing on the grounds that the law infringes on the First Amendment.
“It’s time to do away with the undemocratic and unconstitutional AETA,” said Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Ryan Shapiro. “Corporate power should not dictate the limits of political dissent,”
Hitt, from the Food Integrity Campaign, said such laws cover up illegal or unsafe activities and also stop environmental [and] workers’ rights whistle-blowing, telling Mother Jones magazine, “You have given power to the industry to completely self-regulate.”
Meanwhile, undercover investigations resulted in animal-cruelty arrests at an Iowa hog farm, a Butterball turkey operation in North Carolina, and a Colorado cattle ranch. However, whistleblowers are sometimes busted, too. Police arrested the Colorado whistleblower along with three ranch hands, and award-winning photojournalist George Steinmetz, on assignment from National Geographic, was arrested for photographing a Kansas feedlot from an aircraft.
Some anti-whistleblower sentiments are traced to 1989’s expose of Uniroyal Chemical’s Alar from CBS’ “60 Minutes,” which reported on the dangers of the chemical used by apple growers to enhance color and regulate growth.
“The food industry said ‘never again’ and set out to convince the news media this was a hoax,” said John Stauber of PR Watch, a watchdog group.
However, people hadn’t been misinformed, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, Uniroyal’s own study later confirmed that Alar caused cancer, and a suit by Washington apple growers against CBS was dismissed.
From libel to trespassing, “we already have laws to handle these situations,” according to Gregg Leslie with Reporters for Freedom of the Press. “If the point is to expose questionable practices to the public, criminalization of information should not be tolerated.”
Consumers have a right to know; whistleblowers have a right to tell.
“Very little could be more important to the public good than understanding where our food is coming from and how it’s being processed,” said Ken Paulson of the First Amendment Center. “Efforts to limit scrutiny places agriculture industry interests ahead of the public interest.”
[PICTURED: Illustration by Roland Millington from the cover of Western Illinois Press Review, winter 1996-97.]