As some of you know, I write about cars in my spare time. (I always want to use scare quotes whenever I talk about my “spare time”, but then, everyone feels that way, I suppose, so screw it.) One of today’s big auto industry stories is about Volkswagen, which engineered its diesel cars and SUVs to cheat on emissions tests.
Why did the company do that? Because Volkswagen had promised the world amazing, fuel-efficient diesel vehicles that didn’t muck up the atmosphere, but it couldn’t actually build them. So, Volkswagen cheated. And 11 million allegedly clean-diesel vehicles later, it got caught.
American farmers are doing the same thing. They’re trying to sell greater and greater quantities of meat, eggs, and dairy products, but they want to cut corners. They complain that regulations are restrictive (duh: it’s what they’re there for), and they want to cheat. And they don’t want anyone to tattle on them.
So, they’ve spoken to their legislators and helped to pass “ag gag” laws, which prevent activists and journalists from accessing agricultural facilities and exposing instances of animal cruelty, environmental pollution, and other illegal activities. For a while, the laws worked, but that moment is coming to an end. In August, Idaho fell:
In a landmark victory for the state’s animals, an Idaho judge struck down the state’s ag-gag law on Monday.
Chief Judge B. Lynn Winmill declared that the legislation, which was passed in 2014, violated the First Amendment. “Although the State may not agree with the message certain groups seek to convey about Idaho’s agricultural production facilities, such as releasing secretly-recorded videos of animal abuse to the Internet and calling for boycotts, it cannot deny such groups equal protection of the laws in their exercise of their right to free speech,” he wrote in his decision.
And more recently, Wyoming:
Lawyers for the state argued in court that the new laws helped advance a legitimate government interest in protecting private property. They said there is no First Amendment right to trespass.
Lawyers for the activist groups disagree. “When citizens discover and report violations of law or harm to the public’s interest, they exercise First Amendment rights central to the very idea of our democracy,” Justin Pidot, a law professor at University of Denver, argued in his brief to the court.
“Except in the most extreme circumstances, the government may not punish those who ask it to take action against illegal or harmful activities without violating those fundamental principles of liberty and justice,” Mr. Pidot added.
I understand that farmers are under intense pressure to produce food of all sorts in greater quantities. I understand that we need them to stock our grocery store shelves, and I also understand that they need to earn a living.
But if we turn a blind eye to animal welfare and pollution and a thousand other crimes — here and in China and in India and every other corner of the globe — what good does it do anyone? What kind of world does that create? What kind of world does it leave behind?