by George Looby

For more than a decade states with strong agricultural bases have put in place laws intended to protect animal owners from groups whose primary focus is the “wellbeing” of animals. Oftentimes these groups have no interest in the overall management of the farms whose level of animal care does not meet their standards. It is not by choice that some livestock owners allow their animals’ level of care to become lax. Unforeseen circumstances can alter best practices and compromises must be made that are less than ideal. They may not be the best but better alternatives may not be possible.

These laws adopted by several state legislatures were designed to protect animal owners from being harassed by so-called “animal rights” activists whose intent is to expose the level of animal care existing in or on a given farm or ranch. The findings of such groups are used to force livestock owners to upgrade their perceived marginal management practices or give up livestock production entirely. Many of the individuals who advocate “animal welfare” have as their ultimate goal the complete elimination of livestock production, viewing it as contrary to the basic laws of nature.

As presently structured, the “ag-gag” laws are designed to protect livestock producers from those who wish to gain access to a farm in order to document the conditions under which animals on that farm are kept. These laws make it a crime to enter a farm or take pictures without the owner’s permission. The laws are challenged by animal rights groups because they inhibit their undercover investigations, attempting to expose cases of perceived animal abuse and neglect. A lot of damage can be done when a product of a given farm that is “under surveillance” is linked with a consumer brand. Such associations often lead to the product being dropped by a processor.

Appeals by various animal rights groups have led to rulings by courts that support their contention that it is their constitutional right to document farm conditions. A ruling by a Federal Court struck down an Idaho statute restricting access to livestock facilities without the owner’s permission. The higher court ruled that criminalization of innocent behavior was “staggeringly overboard” and that the state statute was targeted at speech and investigative journalists. The court upheld the part of the statute which makes it an offense for an individual to gain employment for the purpose of causing economic or other injuries to the employer. One cannot lie about the reason one wishes to gain employment.

Iowa passed a new statute called the Agricultural Production Facility Trespass Law which makes it illegal for someone to gain access to private facilities with the intent to cause physical/economic hardship to the operations, property or persons. Misdemeanor and aggravated misdemeanor charges with fines and prison time are suggested as punishments for such behavior.

Now it seems that this ongoing controversy may find its way to the Supreme Court, where differences in opinion between lower Federal Courts often need to be resolved. In this case, the question of lying seems to be the issue that needs to settled. The question of free speech becomes the issue; no one disputes the fact it is a basic constitutional right. When lying takes place that right becomes more involved – one that legal scholars will have to argue/solve.