This story has a little history. Here is some:
Various industrial (includes agricultural) concerns produce perishable food products. The company acquires a product, invests money in processing it, and then sells it for a profit. Only, if it takes a long time to sell the product becomes unsellable, and the company does not make any profit. In fact, it will likely lose money.
Now if, while a company has a perishable product on hand, information gets around that the product is somehow suspect, then the market for the product may shrink or even evaporate. Companies in the perishable food product business will profit more if adverse information does not get around.
In 1995 the Texas Legislature enacted the False Disparagement of Perishable Food Products Act of 1995. Here is a related section of the Texas Code:
TEXAS CIVIL PRACTICE AND REMEDIES CODE
TITLE 4. LIABILITY IN TORT
CHAPTER 96. FALSE DISPARAGEMENT OF PERISHABLE FOOD PRODUCTS
§ 96.001. Definition
In this chapter, “perishable food product” means a food product of agriculture or aquaculture that is sold or distributed in a form that will perish or decay beyond marketability within a limited period of time.
§ 96.002. Liability
(a) A person is liable as provided by Subsection (b) if:
(1) the person disseminates in any manner information relating to a perishable food product to the public;
(2) the person knows the information is false; and
(3) the information states or implies that the perishable food product is not safe for consumption by the public.
(b) A person who is liable under Subsection (a) is liable to the producer of the perishable food product for damages and any other appropriate relief arising from the person’s dissemination of the information.
§ 96.003. Proof
In determining if information is false, the trier of fact shall consider whether the information was based on reasonable and reliable scientific inquiry, facts, or data.
§ 96.004. Certain Marketing or Labeling Excluded
A person is not liable under this chapter for marketing or labeling any agricultural product in a manner that indicates that the product:
(1) was grown or produced by using or not using a chemical or drug;
(2) was organically grown; or
(3) was grown without the use of any synthetic additive.
I am not going to interpret the Code. I will leave that up to the reader.
Anyhow, the following year Howard Lyman was on the Oprah Winfrey Show, and there was some discussion about beef in relation to mad cow disease. Winfrey and Lyman both agreed that eating beef was not a good idea. The results were immediate and catastrophic.
Under the Texas food disparagement law under which Winfrey and Lyman were sued, the plaintiffs — in this case, beef feedlot operator Paul Engler and the company Cactus Feeders — had to convince the jury that Lyman’s statements on Winfrey’s show were not “based on reasonable and reliable scientific inquiry, facts, or data.” As a basis for the damages sought in the lawsuit, the plaintiffs noted that cattle futures dropped 10 percent the day after the episode, and that beef prices fell from 62 cents to 55 cents per pound. Engler’s attorneys argued that the rancher lost $6.7 million, and the plaintiffs sought to recoup total losses of more than $12 million. [Emphasis added]
I watched the case as an interested observer. The idea that a person can get sued for voicing opinion is close to my heart, because I express my opinion a lot, and I feel this need to avoid getting sued. Anyhow, as the case proceeded in 1998 I was deciding what language I would use to describe the outcome, which seemed headed to favor Oprah and her guest. Then it came, and I penned a cute letter to the editor and submitted it to The Dallas Morning News. They printed it, and Jim Frisinger, the letters editor, sent me this nice mug:
I have kept the cup all these years, and I use it to store packets of sugar-free sweetener. That’s because I don’t actually drink coffee.
Anyhow, the thought that came to my mind as the case neared a decision was that these cattlemen were completely out of their league, both in their attempt to stifle criticism and in going up against the Queen of Gab. I ended my letter with wording something like this:
For those cattlemen I suggest a new menu item. Crow, it’s what’s for dinner.
And they had to eat it.
Powerful food and agricultural interests have not, however, lost their appetite for suppressing criticism. With the power to purchase legislation, they have obtained the enactment of favorable legislation that makes it harder for critics to speak out and also harder for them to defend their cases when they are sued.
These laws vary significantly from state to state, but food libel laws typically allow a food manufacturer or processor to sue a person or group who makes disparaging comments about their food products. In some states these laws also establish different standards of proof than are used in traditional American libel lawsuits, including the practice of placing the burden of proof on the party being sued.
More recently legislation of this ilk has come to surface in a Utah criminal case.
First “Ag-Gag” Prosecution: This Utah Woman Filmed a Slaughterhouse from the Public Street
Amy Meyer saw some disturbing occurrences and made a video.
When the slaughterhouse manager came outside and told her to stop, she replied that she was on the public easement and had the right to film. When police arrived, she said told them the same thing. According to the police report, the manager said she was trespassing and crossed over the barbed-wire fence, but the officer noted “there was no damage to the fence in my observation.”
Meyer was allowed to leave. She later found out she was being prosecuted under the state’s new “ag-gag” law.
This is the first prosecution in the country under one of these laws, which are designed to silence undercover investigators who expose animal welfare abuses on factory farms. The legislation is a direct response to a series of shocking investigations by groups like the Humane Society, Mercy for Animals, and Compassion Over Killing that have led to plant closures, public outrage, and criminal charges against workers.
To me the pertinent fact is that Meyer did not trespass. She photographed what she could see from a public venue, and she is being prosecuted for violating a law passed by a state legislature for doing just that. This hits home to me, because I am sometimes in the same position. See The Photo That Got Me Arrested.
I’m not an extremist on this position, but I believe I have the right to photograph with my camera anything I can see with my eyes in a public place. Having that right, I make sure not to abuse it. I don’t go out of my way to photograph people who do not want to be photographed. For example, during a photo trip to Morocco there were women in some of my photos who, although they did not cover their faces in public, still did not want me to take their photo. No problem.
But back to the issue at hand.
Laws similar to the one in Utah are on the books or in the works. In particular, a bill in Tennessee has been sent to the governor for ratification, and it and its sponsors may be typical. Representative Andy Holt is one of the bill’s sponsors, and an e-mail exchange between Holt and Kayci McLeod of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) is telling. The following is an excerpt from Holt’s mail to McLeod:
I am extremely pleased that we were able to pass HB 1191 today to help protect livestock in Tennessee from suffering months of needless investigation that propagandist groups of radical animal activists, like your fraudulent and reprehensibly disgusting organization of maligned animal abuse profiteering corporatists, who are intent on using animals the same way human-traffickers use 17 year old women. You work for a pathetic excuse for an organization and a pathetic group of sensationalists who seek to profit from animal abuse. I am glad, as an aside, that we have limited your preferred fund-raising methods here in the state of Tennessee; a method that I refer to as “tape and rape.” Best wishes for the failure of your organization and it’s true intent.
While acknowledging there is animosity against HSUS on the part of Holt, some of his remarks seem to be completely over the top. He wants to “protect livestock in Tennessee from suffering months of needless investigation?” Really? HSUS is a “pathetic excuse for an organization?” Really? HSUS uses “animals the same way human-traffickers use 17 year old women?” Really? How much more can Representative Holt say to dig himself into a deeper hole? If he had a good public relations advisor I am sure that advisor would give Representative Holt some advice like this: “Mr. Holt, instead of all that invective, why don’t you just respond and tell HSUS they did not contribute to your re-election, but certain industrial concerns did, and you need to properly represent the people who pay the bills. Just tell them that’s the way democracy works.”
Meanwhile, back in Utah, Representative John Mathis likens animal rights activists to terrorists:
SALT LAKE CITY — Veterinarian and part-time farmer Rep. John Mathis, R-Vernal, wants to put a stop to what he called “animal-rights terrorists” who take videos or photos on farmers’ property without permission to create propaganda aimed at destroying the agriculture industry.
“There are groups with the stated purpose to do away with animal agriculture, and that’s egregious — that’s egregious to me,” Mathis told legislators this week. “The animal welfare movement has become an animal rights movement, and that’s wrong.[“]
Mathis’ bill, HB187, would make “agricultural operation interference” a crime, a class A misdemeanor on the first offense, a third-degree felony on the second.
Enough said for a while. In the mean time we can only hope that the Al-Qaeda will quickly adopt the same terrorist tactics of HSUS and similar groups and quit murdering people.
Lest readers think I come up with interesting topics like this entirely on my own, allow me to reassure you I get lots of help, without which I would be mostly clueless. This post was inspired by a posting from Steve Breed, one of my Facebook “friends.” To protect his privacy I have not used Steve’s real name.