The Danger of California's "Ag-Gag" Bill

Photo by net_efekt

Before any kind of intro on my end, here, read the nuts and bolts of state bill AB 343, the so-called "ag-gag" bill introduced last month by Republican assemblyman Jim Patterson:

On the surface, it seems pretty reasonable, right? If you witness an act of cruelty and get proof through video or photos, what's the downside of turning that evidence over to the authorities as quick as you can? The faster the evidence is turned over, the faster the offending party can be fired and/or prosecuted rather than continuing to abuse more animals. Who wouldn't want this kind of abuse reported as quick as possible? As Patterson himself states:

Of course, then you realize the bill was sponsored by the California Cattlemen's Association, a trade group representing beef producers in the state, and folks generally drawing the ire of animal abuse activist organizations like the Humane Society of the U.S., and something starts to smell a little funny.

"It's the kind of thing that at first blush seems like it's trying to help animals," says Jennifer Fearing, California Senior State Director of the Humane Society, "but it doesn't have that impact."

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To understand why, you have to understand how animal abuse in factory farms work. For the most part, abuse is not simply the act of one crazy person who's provoking cows in strange ways or getting some kind of sadistic enjoyment out of the stun gun. It's abuse instituted from the top down, with management policies focused more on saving a buck in the slaughterhouse than worrying about how the animals are treated. To provide evidence for that near-conspiratorial event taking place, you need more than just a few clips or snapshots.

"That's not something we can document in a day or two," says Fearing. "When we go into these facilities, we witness pretty egregious cruelties that are not single acts. These are systemic. There's a culture and a story to tell about how it's going down, which is relevant in an investigative context. And this pattern is what allows us to be able to show that these are not one-off incidences, so the correction that needs to be made is a lot bigger than firing one bad apple."

(Try this: Think about your favorite cop-goes-deep-undercover movie. Something like "Donnie Brasco" or "The Departed." Now, imagine that the undercover cop is legally bound to report any suspicious activities within 48 hours. Instead of building a case and slowly earning the trust of the organization, he starts ratting out the mobsters for jaywalking and petty theft during his first week with them. Chances are the head honchos aren't going to let him into the secret meetings where the big stuff's discussed.)

The L.A. Times, in their editorial coming out against the bill, tells the story about a local long-term undercover investigation that brought about significant change:

The end result was the largest beef recall in U.S. history and a complete shutting down of the plant in question. But if that investigation was attempted in a landscape after AB 343 became law? It would change in one of two significant ways.

First, the investigation would go through as it did, but with videos and photos being delivered to cops within the 48-hour window. If that happened, instead of having the massive amount of collected material that could be used to cease operations in the plant as a whole, nothing more would happen than a few low-level employees getting canned. "The most reasonable scenario would be that someone from law enforcement would pick up the phone and let the owner know, with no intention of bringing charges," says Fearing, "which means our whistleblower is done for."

The second possibility, however, is much more frightening: If AB 343 were passed back in 2007, there's a good chance there would have never been an investigation at the plant in the first place. And that's not me trying my hand at fear-mongering; there's plenty of evidence the passage of the so-called "ag-gag" bills already have that affect.

California is merely one of eight states throughout the country that have bills like this pending. (And, actually, it's one of the milder versions: In Tennessee, video and photos have to be turned over within a 24-hour period, while in Pennsylvania any secret recording at factory farms is a felony.) Six other states, however, have already passed such legislation, including recently-signed laws in Iowa, Missouri and Utah. The results of these new laws speak for themselves.

"Groups have ceased doing investigations in those states because of the laws," says Fearing. "It has an absolute chilling effect."

If AB 343 bill passes, you can expect the same result here in California.

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