UPDATE: Just 24 hours after I broke this story here, and following a massive amount of media coverage, prosecutors dropped all charges.
Amy Meyer wanted to see the slaughterhouse for herself. She had heard that anyone passing by could view the animals, so she drove to Dale Smith Meatpacking Company in Draper City, Utah, and from the side of the road she could see through the barbed-wire fence. Piles of horns littered the property. Cows struggled with workers who tried to lead them into a building. And one scene in particular made her stop.
“A live cow who appeared to be sick or injured being carried away from the building in a tractor,” Meyer told me, “as though she were nothing more than rubble.”
As she witnessed this, Meyer did what most of us would in the age of smart phones and YouTube: she recorded.
When the slaughterhouse manager came outside and told her to stop, she replied that she was on the public easement and had the right to film. When police arrived, she said told them the same thing. According to the police report, the manager said she was trespassing and crossed over the barbed-wire fence, but the officer noted “there was no damage to the fence in my observation.”
Nebraska, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Vermont are all considering similar bills right now.
Meyer was allowed to leave. She later found out she was being prosecuted under the state’s new “ag-gag” law. [UPDATE: Available here for the first time, watch the video that resulted in the first ag-gag prosecution.]
This is the first prosecution in the country under one of these laws, which are designed to silence undercover investigators who expose animal welfare abuses on factory farms. The legislation is a direct response to a series of shocking investigations by groups like the Humane Society, Mercy for Animals, and Compassion Over Killing that have led to plant closures, public outrage, and criminal charges against workers.
Even the most sweeping ag-gag bills, such as the American Legislative Exchange Council model legislation, don’t explicitly target filming from a roadside. But Nebraska, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Vermont are all considering bills similar to the Utah law right now.
Pennsylvania’s bill criminalizes anyone who “records an image of, or sound from, the agricultural operation” or who “uploads, downloads, transfers or otherwise sends” the footage using the Internet.
North Carolina’s bill doesn’t specifically mention factory farms or slaughterhouses: it is called the “Commerce Protection Act,” and it includes investigations of any industry. It was introduced on the same day a fifth employee of Butterball pleaded guilty to animal cruelty after an undercover investigation showed workers beating turkeys.
Tennessee’s bill has already passed and is awaiting signature from the governor. In response to calls for a veto from the Humane Society and Carrie Underwood, one state representative compared undercover investigations to rape and sex-trafficking.
California’s ag-gag bill recently failed, after a massive public backlash. One newspaper editorial said “the cattlemen have committed the worst PR gaffe since New Coke.” The bill was a response to an undercover investigation by the Humane Society that showed “downer” cows, too sick to move, being pushed by tractors (much like what Amy Meyer recorded in Utah). It led to the largest meat recall in U.S. history.
The public backlash against these bills, including recent editorials by the New York Times and Washington Post, has relied on hypothetical examples of how they could be used. The AFL-CIO and Teamsters say they could put workers at risk. The ASPCA says they could shut down lawful investigations by animal protection groups. The National Press Photographers Association says they could wrap up journalists.
The first ag-gag prosecution should be a warning that these aren’t hypothetical concerns. These bills have one purpose: keep consumers in the dark. Rather than respond to video footage of animal cruelty with across-the-board reforms, the industry is trying to turn off the cameras.
“These aren’t hypothetical concerns… the industry is trying to turn off the cameras.”
It’s telling that the owner of the slaughterhouse Amy Meyer filmed happens to be Darrell H. Smith, the town mayor. (Mayor Smith, the meatpacking company, and the local prosecutor did not return phone calls for comment). If that’s shocking to you, it shouldn’t be. In Iowa, for example, the nation’s first ag-gag law was sponsored by Rep. Annette Sweeney, who is the former director of the Iowa Angus Association.
In Utah, the bill’s sponsor, Rep. John Mathis, called undercover investigators “animal rights terrorists” and said video recordings of animal abuse are “propaganda.” In his opening remarks at a legislative hearing on the ag-gag bill, Mathis said: “It’s fun to see my good ag friends in this committee… all my good friends are here.” Ag-gag supporters couldn’t be any more transparent in their financial motivations for censorship.
It was prescient that, as the Utah bill was being considered, the Utah Sentencing Commission warned that it could be used against anyone who merely takes a photograph of a farm or slaughterhouse. At the time, Rep. Greg Hughes of Draper replied: “Who would really pursue that in terms of prosecution?” Now, the first ag-gag prosecution is for precisely that, in his own district.
Most people won’t ever find themselves in the position of Amy Meyer, of course. Few of us actively seek out information about how our food is produced. (Do you know the location of a factory farm, if you wanted to?) The animal products just arrive at the supermarket, without investigation or thought.
“Who would really pursue that in terms of prosecution?”
With ag-gag bills, the industry is trying to keep it that way. These bills are not just about animal activists from national organizations going undercover. They are about people like Amy Meyer, who have seen how animals are being treated, and who want you to see what they have seen.
Will Potter is the author of Green Is the New Red: An Insider’s Account of a Social Movement Under Siege (City Lights, 2011).
UPDATE: Available here for the first time, watch the video that resulted in the first ag-gag prosecution.