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Animal abuse whistle-blowers, not criminals

Animal abuse whistle-blowers, not criminals
Workers at a dairy facility in Idaho use a tractor to drag a cow on the floor by a chain attached to her neck in this undercover video footage of animal abuse shot by an investigator working for the animal welfare group, Mercy for Animals. (Courtesy of Mercy for Animals)

At the request of the Animal Legal Defense Fund and other organizations, a federal judge recently struck down an Idaho law that made it a crime to conduct undercover investigations and videotape operations at an agricultural production facility without the owner's permission. People working undercover could also have been convicted for not disclosing their connections to animal welfare groups or media outlets when seeking employment at such a facility. The ruling was the right one. It's simply bad policy to tailor the law to protect a favored industry from scrutiny.

The Idaho law is one of a passel of so-called ag-gag laws passed in eight states. They vary, but all are intended to thwart animal welfare advocates working undercover to expose cruel — and usually illegal — practices on factory farms. Videos released by animal welfare groups have documented patterns of horrific animal abuses that resulted in changes in procedure, criminal charges and the shuttering of slaughterhouses.

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The Idaho law was passed in 2014 after an investigator working undercover at a dairy farm secretly taped workers beating, kicking and jumping on cows. The investigator released the video to a group called Mercy for Animals, which gave it to state regulators before releasing it publicly. Outraged state legislators passed the bill — sponsored by the Idaho Dairymen's Assn. — on the grounds that the agriculture industry needed protection from animal rights activists.

In fact, that industry, like all businesses, already has remedies under state law if it is damaged by such activities. As District Court Chief Judge B. Lynn Winmill noted in his summary judgment, the facility owners could sue investigators for fraud or defamation — or launch a public relations campaign in the same court of public opinion that animal welfare groups use.

Farms are hardly the only target of undercover investigations — witness the recent firestorm around Planned Parenthood, for example, or the controversy that toppled the low-income housing activist group ACORN. One can only imagine the outcry in Idaho if the Legislature did for Planned Parenthood what it did for factory farms.

Agribusiness may consider them terrorists, but undercover investigators have played an important role as whistle-blowers, revealing an array of serious, often shocking abuses of animals in an industry that is woefully under-monitored by federal regulators, who are spread too thin. These revelations have an impact not just on animal health but the food supply. Lawmakers shouldn't seek to protect the perpetrators of bad agricultural practices at the expense of public safety and the humane treatment of farm animals.

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