Big Ag’s Latest Attempt to Chill Free Speech

Cross-posted from Food Safety News.

For many good food advocates, the end of a legislative session often means disappointment that their bills to help fix our broken food system did not pass. But in some states, when lawmakers go home we should really all breathe a big sigh of relief.

Such was the case last week when the Iowa Legislature adjourned without passing one of the more obnoxious proposals to rear its ugly head in any state house this year. In the wake of video footage exposing the horrific conditions of animals raised for our consumption, agribusiness decided it was time to fight back.

Iowa House File 589 would have made it a crime to “produce” an image or sound recording at an animal facility without permission from the owner. To ensure that media outlets also got the message, even possession and distribution of such recordings would have been outlawed.

For the first offense, you could be charged with an “aggravated misdemeanor” while a second offense could bring felony charges. And that was just under the section, “animal facility interference.” You could also be brought up on charges of animal facility fraud, crop operation tampering, crop operation interference, and crop operation fraud, each with its own mind-bending definition.

Earlier this year, Minnesota and Florida introduced similar bills. New York jumped into the fray in June, the last month of the legislative session there. The New York bill, titled without a hint of irony, “unlawful tampering with farm animals,” threatened punishment up to one year in jail or a $1,000 fine.

While these bills are particularly egregious, it’s not the first time that Big Agribusiness has attempted to silence its critics through a state-by-state attack on free speech rights. In fact, one of the first op-ed articles I ever published was on the “veggie libel laws” that were passed in the late 1990s. These statues, which were enacted in at least a dozen states, essentially turned speaking negatively about any food into a potential libel lawsuit. It was under one such statute in Texas that Oprah Winfrey was sued by six cattle feeder corporations for doing a show on the risks of mad cow disease in beef. (She won the case.)

That state-by-state lobbying effort was also led by powerful agriculture interests able to find friendly legislators to do their bidding. Another familiar theme is how the ag gag bills are so obviously a violation of the First Amendment. At least two constitutional law experts (both in Iowa) agree that these measures are unlikely to withstand a court challenge. But that hardly seems to matter.

What does matter is that the message is sent loud and clear to anyone who seeks to expose the unspeakable atrocities that animals suffer daily on factory farms: that engaging in such reporting will have serious consequences. It’s called chilling speech.

The good news is that so far, no ag gag bill has passed. While some animal advocacy groups have hailed the failure in all four states where bills were introduced, I wouldn’t recommend a victory party just yet. Procedurally, the bills were not voted down or vetoed by any governor. Rather, they each passed through their respective committees and died before coming to a full chamber vote. A positive sign for sure, but still no guarantee the threat is over.

For example, in Iowa, the bill passed the House but was left to die without a full vote in the Senate. According to an interviewwith Iowa Rep. Jim Lykam (who is opposed), as a two-year bill, the measure doesn’t even have to be reintroduced for the Legislature to vote on it again, come January 2012. And Republican Gov. Terry Branstad is already on record in favor of the idea.

The lead sponsor in Iowa was Republican Rep. Annette Sweeney, a cattle rancher and former executive director of the Iowa Angus Association. Also on record in support of the bill are the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association and the Iowa Poultry Association. Other Big Ag backers according to one account included “Monsanto, DuPont, and other mammoth agriculture corporations and trade associations.”

Such heavy hitters don’t let one minor setback get them down. Dave Murphy, founder and executive director of Food Democracy Now — an advocacy group based in Iowa — agrees we should not get complacent. “Iowans were fortunate this year. Intense opposition and media scrutiny helped kill it in the end. This victory, however, is temporary as proponents are promising to reintroduce the bill next year,” he said.

This is what agribusiness does best: keep up the lobbying pressure wherever they can. Indeed, signs indicate that these bills are part of a nationally coordinated effort. For example, the language of the Iowa and Minnesota bills bear a striking resemblance, suggesting a state-by-state attack strategy – just like the veggie libel laws. The language of those earlier bills was virtually identical.

The sponsor of the Minnesota bill is Rep. Rod Hamilton, past president of the Minnesota Pork Producers. And, apparently, the bill was aided by the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council, a powerful agricultural lobbying group. Dayrn McBeth, president of the organization, explained their strategy: “Neither we nor the authors expect to pass these bills. It was intended to start a conversation.”

Or maybe stop one?

Here’s what I wrote in 1998: “These laws are nothing more than an effort by big business to chill the free speech efforts by those seeking to raise legitimate questions about the safety of our nation’s food supply.” Just add “and concerns about animal welfare” and it’s déjà vu all over again.

 “Big Ag’s Latest Attempt to Chill Free Speech” was originally published at Food Safety News on July 7, 2011. Republished with permission from Food Safety News. C Marler Clark and Michele Simon. All rights reserved.