In 1904, journalist Upton Sinclair went undercover in a Chicago meatpacking plant to document the lives of impoverished workers. He turned his observations, and plenty of fictional absurdities and exaggerations, into the 1906 novel "The Jungle."
Americans were outraged -- not so much by the working conditions as by the depiction of unsanitary and potentially dangerous health standards common at the time.
President Theodore Roosevelt thought Sinclair was a crackpot, yet his book caused such an uproar that Roosevelt ordered a clandestine investigation into the industry. The inquiry backed up some of Sinclair's claims, and eventually led to the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act, as well as creation of what eventually would become the Food and Drug Administration.
Sinclair became a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and the meat industry was changed for the better.
But if a bill being introduced in the Minnesota Legislature were to pass, people like Sinclair would become something else -- criminals.
The bill would make it illegal for anyone to obtain a job at, say, a meat processing plant or hog farm under false pretenses. It would also criminalize taking photos, video or audio of such facilities -- or for that matter puppy mills or veterinarian offices, without the permission of the owners.
Chuck Samuelson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, calls the bill "crazy" and "silly." More important, he said, "it's clearly unconstitutional."
Samuelson said the state bill is duplicative of federal law in many important ways. There already are laws against trespassing and doing damage to property, and federal law toughens the penalties when those acts are done as protests. Pushing laws further will largely infringe upon free speech and the free press, he said.
Should the measure, which has not yet had a hearing, pass, this is what will happen, says Samuelson: Activist groups such as PETA will immediately test its validity. Similar proposals exist in Iowa and Florida, so any of the three states could become the testing ground.
So, while Minnesota producers have rarely been targeted in the past, they might become sure targets in the future. Samuelson predicts that activists would almost certainly win on free speech grounds, and the state would end up paying their legal bills, as well.
"We like to call this the PETA full-funding bill" because it will galvanize supporters and mean more money for the group, he predicted.
Lest anyone think I'm a PETA groupie, think again. I am often dismayed by its radical rhetoric and counterproductive tactics. When one of my favorite readers tries to persuade me to become a vegetarian by sending me graphic photos, I respond by sending her Mario Batali's recipe for lamb scottadito (marinate chops at room temperature in a coarse mix of lemon zest, chopped mint, sea salt and pepper. Grill to medium-rare).
But a bill that would seemingly prohibit both journalists and whistleblowers from reporting on animal abuse? Crazy. Silly.
One of the bill's authors, Sen. Doug Magnus, R-Slayton, told a reporter that "it's aimed at people who are harassing and sabotaging these operations. These people who go undercover aren't being truthful about what they're doing."
Right. I'm guessing knocking on the door and asking if you can please enter and document abuse wouldn't go over very well.
Nathan Runkle, executive director of Mercy for Animals (MFA), a national animal rights organization that does undercover investigations, said the bills are "meant to intimidate us. It's a testament to how successful [activists] have been in exposing cruelty."
MFA investigations from Iowa to Texas have led to raids, stronger laws and civil and criminal charges. One facility was so bad it was taken over temporarily by a government agency. Runkle said MFA abides by all laws and that its investigators give their real names.
"These laws are a blatant violation of free press and free speech," he said. "It's scary."
I understand that sometimes these videos, in the hands of zealots, can be manipulated to make conditions appear worse than they are, or a deviation from industry standards, so I have some sympathy for the industry. But the frequent punitive actions taken by authorities show that sometimes more scrutiny is needed, and this oppressive bill seems geared more to appease lobbyists than do good.
An axiom in politics seems to fit this situation: "There are two things you don't want to see being made. One is sausage. The other is legislation."
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