Those penalties are referenced in the lawsuit, since a first-offense conviction for animal cruelty in Idaho only carries a maximum sentence of six months. As the plaintiffs phrased it, “Someone who exposes animal cruelty is more severely punished those than those who commit it.”
The recipe for prevention
Call them advocates or call them vigilantes, over the last decade or so, people affiliated with animal rights groups, both extreme and moderate, have conducted more than 80 undercover actions at livestock sites and packing plants across the United States, virtually all of which would be considered crimes under the Idaho statute.
I’ll grant you that some of the videos that surfaced have been horrific. As anyone in the business would have to admit, there are some bad actors out there, and a lack of training and/or supervision can and does lead to mistreatment and abuse that is absolutely intolerable.
Of course, there is also plenty of evidence that many — if not most — of the video clips that end up online or in the news have been heavily edited to make them appear as graphic as possible.
But the Idaho law is a cause for concern, in that we the people have a right to know when any institution is breaking the law, whether it’s a government agency operating in secrecy, a too-big-to-fail bank fleecing investors or a religious organization whose officials are covering up sex abuse scandals.
About the only way any of that comes to light is through the diligence of investigative journalists, so a law that simply shuts off any chance of exposing wrongdoing is troubling.
Here’s the problem, though: The activists obtaining jobs at packing plants and livestock sites and then capturing video clips are not journalists. Their interests aren’t focused on the pursuit of truth. That’s a mere side effect of their primary intention: To discredit and demonize anyone engaged in the business of animal agriculture.
In the end, this law is likely to be struck down, if not by the District Court, then on appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court — not because anyone should have unfettered access to a private business to capture something illegal on video, but because the law is too broadly written. It’s too restrictive to shield an entire industry from scrutiny, just because there have been a few outrageous incidents of activists gaining unauthorized entry and capturing images the business owners don’t like.
Journalistic access needs to be protected, as do the operations of a proprietary business.
However, the way to prevent activists from conducting unauthorized filming on the premises is by implementing better security, not by enforcing tougher laws.
And the ultimate answer is for industry is to make sure that even if activists do get inside the gates, there’s nothing going on that’s worth filming.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.