Its not often that we get to celebrate some good news at the Puppycide Database Project - but last week we got to do just that after US District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill struck down Idaho's notorious "Ag Gag" law. The law was the product of collusion between incredibly large factory farms and related businesses and the politicians who received generous financial contributions from those factory farms. The target of the law were industry whistleblowers and non-violent animal rights activists, who over the preceding two decades have uncovered numerous abuses inside factory farms that have revealed to the public a culture of cruelty, negligence and a disregard for sanitary laws and regulations. The overwhelming popularity of today's "free range" and "natural" foods is directly attributable to the work of these activists and whistle-blowers.
Many factory farms responded to exposes of bad practices through reform, while others decided to criminalize the very act of whistle-blowing against the agricultural industry. In Idaho, the latter group succeeded, introducing and carrying a bill through the Idaho legislature that made it a felony to tape or video record farms within the state. Those found guilty would face consequences that included a year in prison as well as restitution calculated at twice the economic damage caused by the publicity of recordings of factory farm abuse - a number that is impossible to calculate objectively and would reach figures that would ensure a guilty verdict would translate to a lifetime of crushing debt to an agricultural conglomerate.
Judge B. Lynn Winmill's decision to strike down this Idaho law is an important victory for the public. Because all of us are consumers of agricultural products, all of us profit when we have access to objective, credible information about the food that we purchase. That is why this court case is important to those outside of the animal rights movement - exposes of factory farm practices revealed not just unspeakably inhumane practices that brutalized livestock, but also provided documentation of disgusting violations of laws governing the cleanliness of agricultural operations. Multiple videos revealed cows and chickens who spent an entire lifetime inside a pen too small for the animal to move and in which the animal was forced to wallow in his or her own feces.
In addition to the information that consumers gain from factory farm industry watch-dogs, "Ag Gag" laws threaten to establish precedents that criminalize journalists, researchers and activists investigating any industry. If the courts were to decide that one politically-connected industry should be able to imprison those who reveal corporate wrong-doing, what is to stop the next politically-connected industry from purchasing similar laws?
For that matter - why would corporations be the only ones purchasing this type of legislation? Public employee unions have for years been regularly identified as the largest political campaign contributors, with unions for police officers and prison guards among the most influential among those government unions. "Ag Gag" laws could within a few elections become "Puppycide Gag" laws, or "Prison Gag" laws which criminalize the photographing of crime scenes or the kind of research that the Puppycide Database Project and similar groups take part in.
To some readers, concerns like this might sound paranoid. We ask those readers to consider the very nature of the Puppycide Database Project before dismissing these concerns. Police officers routinely enter private property without a warrant or permission, and open fire on family pets - this happens thousands upon thousands of time each year in every state in the US. We have demonstrated that when police open fire on these pets they routinely do so when a child (who has committed no crime and is completely unarmed) is within the field of fire. We have further demonstrated that dogs pose no legitimate lethal threat to police officers through numerous studies that show there been no cops killed by dogs in 50 years and furthermore that no one in the age group most commonly associated with "beat" police officers has been killed by a dog under any circumstances in the last 18 years. We have recorded incidents where police stab, disembowel, strangle, poison and crush the skulls of pets of all kinds - including cats, squirrels and parakeets. We have thousands of examples of this behavior.
And after a year of research we have not been able to find a police officer who has been found guilty of a felony or even incarcerated for the actions described above. In the handful of cases where police officers faced criminal charges, felony charges were always dropped - either completely dropped, dismissed, reduced to misdemeanor charges or the officer was acquitted. In the very small number of cases where police plea or are found guilty, punishment is exclusively probation with a term of under one year.
Meanwhile, we have found numerous and repeated incidents from across the country of US citizens who engage in the same behavior described above, and who have been convicted of felonies and been sentenced to significant prison terms for their crimes. As we compile more and more evidence of a disconnect between the consequences meted out to police officers and ordinary citizens for violent crimes, it becomes increasingly more difficult to ignore the possibility that in fact a separate judicial system exists: one for the politically connected, and one for everyone else. Individuals in this second judicial system can, as described above, shoot guns at unarmed children without fearing consequences, among many other benefits.
As we wrap up this post, let's return to the earlier concern - that "Ag Gag" laws could be used as a stepping stone for bans on other types of journalism, research and activism, including activity like the Puppycide Database Project. If we can entertain that there might exist de facto exemptions from law for political connected classes - with exemptions including a nearly complete lack of criminal consequences for activities up to and including murder - the idea that protections might also be carved out to exempt politically connected classes from embarrassing speech strikes one as somewhere quite shy of conspiratorial.
Even so, the United States has a deep reverence for protections of political speech, even unpopular speech. It is no coincidence that those protections were outlined in the very first amendment to the US Bill of Rights - speech has from our founding been seen as a fundamental protection against tyranny, while a marketplace of ideas is a necessary component of any flourishing society. Unfortunately, the history of legalistic manipulations of protections of speech are nearly as long; it was, after all, one of the Founding Fathers who authored the Alien & Sedition Act. Since then, without passing a constitutional amendment, opponents of free speech have declared by fiat that entire mediums of communication must be strictly regulated for content - like television and radio. Organizations like Photography is Not a Crime have been founded solely to investigate incidents where police illegally arrest, detain and physically assault citizens and journalists who attempt to photograph officers on duty. Meanwhile, even writers and editorialists whose livelihood (and, ultimately, freedom) depends upon a strong interpretation of the First Amendment blithely reproduce cynical and authoritarian platitudes like "you can't shout fire in a crowded theater" and "there are no protections for 'hate speech'".
Judge B. Lynn Winmill's decision to smash the Idaho "Ag Gag" law was an important victory. However, those of us who cherish free speech, a strong and independent press, as well as the rights of whistle-blowers and non-violent activists would do well to remember that this was a small battle in a much larger war - the outcome of which is anything but determined.