Earlier this year, Iowa’s first “ag-gag” law was struck down in federal court for violating the First Amendment. Last week, Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a second law to replace the first, aiming once again to criminalize undercover investigations at factory farms and slaughterhouses by prohibiting entering these facilities “with the intent to cause physical or economic harm or other injury.”
When our investigators go undercover to get inside factory farms and slaughterhouses, their intent is never to cause harm — but to expose it. In fact, the horrific abuse a Mercy For Animals investigator documented at an Iowa Select Farms plant in 2011 precipitated the passage of Iowa’s first ag-gag law. We uncovered sick and injured piglets left to suffer to death without veterinary care, mother pigs confined for months on end to metal crates so small the animals could not turn around, and workers hurling piglets across the room.
Our investigations of an Iowa egg farm and a hatchery revealed egregious, sickening abuse. Given that Iowa produces about a quarter of all pork and 17% of eggs consumed in the United States, investigations like ours bear witness to the misery animals endure for our country’s food supply.
It is a topsy-turvy political world in which those who risk their lives to expose such animal abuse are made into criminals — and those who profit from it are protected. But when laws like these pass, our society stands to lose so much more than a window into the secret world of industrial animal agriculture. When we suppress free speech to protect the economic interests of powerful corporations, we risk all Americans’ health and safety.
“Truthful revelation may indeed cause economic harm, but quite often truthful revelation has led to the saving of lots of human lives,” said Iowa state Sen. Herman Quirmbach, who opposed the bill. “Punishing people whose truthful revelation of information causes economic harm is something we should not do.” He recalled Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” which exposed stomach-churning animal cruelty and poor sanitation inside slaughterhouses and led to groundbreaking food-safety regulations.
The positive outcome of Sinclair’s work is just one example of the power of truth to protect people over profit. Imagine if the doctors and researchers who sounded the alarm about tobacco’s link to cancer had been silenced by the industry their message targeted.
Or imagine if Associated Press reporters, whose investigative journalism on the American seafood industry led to the freeing of 2,000 slaves, had been prevented from exposing this grim (yet economically inconvenient) reality.
These lifesaving acts of bravery are not only protected by the U.S. Constitution but celebrated with prestigious awards, such as the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. As a society, we recognize the good that comes when citizens dare to exercise their right to free speech by lifting the veil that shields corporations’ unethical practices from public scrutiny.
Ag-gag laws exemplify growing threats to this essential right. As Iowa state Rep. Liz Bennett said, the new Iowa law “gives the middle finger to free speech, consumer protection, food safety and animal welfare.”
And ag-gag laws are particularly troubling because lawmakers — elected to protect these very public goods — do the animal agriculture industry’s bidding, placing its economic interests over their own constituents’ rights and safety.
The bottom line is that if the animal agriculture industry had nothing to hide, it would not feel threatened to the point of trampling on Americans’ constitutional rights. When economic interests conflict with the public interest, industries must hold themselves responsible. Rather than silence and criminalize those of us who uncover their wrongdoing, they should give us nothing to expose.