Undead laws: ‘Ag-gag bills’ are back to keep factory farm abuse a secret
The progressive left likes to use the term “zombie lies” to refer to untruths that are repeatedly debunked and yet remain endlessly parroted by the media. The phrase may or may not have been coined by blogger Duncan Black (aka atrios), who quipped, “No matter how hard we try to kill them, they keep coming back to eat our brains.”
Perhaps now we should start another meme: zombie bills. Or legislation that opponents believe to be dead but rises up from the grave. Exhibit A: ag-gag laws.
We covered last year’s attempts by Big Ag to pass several of these bills, which are designed to end undercover documentation of abuse on factory farms. And, as of last summer, it looked like the bills in Iowa, Florida, Minnesota, and New York were dead.
But, as Grist List noted last week, Iowa’s bill was reconstituted, and it zipped through the legislature and onto the governor’s desk — keeping opponents from rallying the troops. Meanwhile in Florida, last year’s ag-gag bill that would make it illegal to photograph farms without permission has been reintroduced to the state legislature, with similar legislation pending in several other states, including Illinois and New York.
Why did Iowa succumb to the zombie threat first? Well, for one, it’s the largest hog and egg producer in the country. It’s also where two of the highest-profile undercover videos — one of chicks being ground up alive and another of mistreated pigs — were shot. And it helps to have a governor who believes that undercover videos revealing animal abuse, rather than the abuse itself, are “a problem that should be addressed,” as Iowa’s Gov. Terry Branstad (R) does.
Yet as bad news as this is, it’s still worth looking closely at the Iowa bill. For one, it seems to have lost an arm or two on its way to becoming law. According to the Des Moines Register, the new law focuses entirely on prosecuting those who gain employment on a farm under false pretenses. The article reads:
Iowa’s law makes lying on a job application to get access to a farm facility a serious misdemeanor, punishable with up to one year in prison and a fine of up to $1,500. A second conviction carries harsher penalties.
Food Safety News reports that a second conviction under the new law will be treated as a Class D Felony, which in Iowa carries a sentence of up to five years in prison and a potential fine of $750 to $7,500. That’s no slap on the wrist — although these are all sentencing guidelines, not requirements.
What the bill won’t do is make it illegal to produce, distribute, or possess a video made inside a factory farm. If last year’s version of the bill had passed, it would have made those activities illegal. That bill ran into constitutional hurdles, particularly in its attempt to enforce prior restraint — stopping someone from doing something illegal rather than punishing them for violating the law — a problem the current bill’s focus on employment violations tries to avoid.
Of course it’s already illegal in Iowa, as it is nearly everywhere, to lie on a job application. So this bill is clearly designed to intimidate potential animal-welfare whistleblowers. But this change in focus also means the new law can’t be enforced until after a video has been made and distributed — which makes it more of a scare tactic than an attack on the First Amendment.
And unlike last year’s bill (and the ones in other states), true whistleblowers — existing employees who witness and record abuses — remain unaffected. After all, the state will have to prove that the employee expressly applied for the job to produce an undercover video — assuming they can prove who made the video in the first place. Meanwhile, if the footage is produced by an out-of-state resident who leaves Iowa before the release of the video, it’s not clear whether having an outstanding misdemeanor charge on one’s record means anything other than that one can’t go to Iowa anymore (lawyers, chime in if I’m wrong).
Iowa’s ag-gag law may not be the strongest zombie, but that doesn’t make it any less disturbing when we see it as part of a larger effort to drop an Iron Curtain over industrial agriculture. And that effort dates back quite a ways (as Tom Philpott’s failed 2007 attempt to gain entrance to an Iowa hog farm illustrates).
While at least one legal scholar thinks the new bill is on shaky constitutional ground, Iowa’s attorney general is convinced it will stand up to judicial scrutiny. And even if Iowa’s watered-down version doesn’t pass constitutional muster, our brains — or at least our rights to know what’s going on inside factory farms — aren’t entirely safe.