Ag Gag Law Struck Down

Compared to other similarly sized sectors of the economy, it seems agriculture often has more political power.  Farmer groups tend to be relatively well organized, and the sector is often mentioned as a textbook case of political action based on "concentrated benefits and diffuse costs."

Sometimes that power is used to increase the size of the pie (e.g., by arguing for freer trade or for more productivity enhancing research) but sometimes the reverse is true (e.g., by arguing for various protectionist or subsidy policies).  Particularly at the state level, agricultural groups can often make some headway in getting what they want because there are often more rural legislators than urban ones.  Because of this, sometimes I wonder whether sometimes they might ask for things that produce a short term benefit they later regret in the longer term?

Case in point.  A number of states have been successful in passing so-called ag-gag laws that essentially prohibit the making or showing of undercover videos on farms.  From the farmer's perspective, it isn't hard to see understand the motivation for such laws.  But, what kind of PR does such a law create for the agricultural sector?  Well, as it turns out, a federal judge's decision to strike down an ag-gag law in Idaho prompted this piece by the New York Times editors.  They write:

While most Americans enjoy eating meat, it is hard to stomach the often sadistic treatment of factory-farmed cows, pigs and chickens.

Farm operators know this, and they go to great lengths to hide these gruesome images from the public.

So, in trying to protect themselves from undercover activists, proponents of the law now created bad publicity for the entire industry (even for producers who weren't video taped and who did no wrong) in one of the largest newspapers in the country.  It is not as if there is no legal recourse for activists who break the law.  As the NYT editors write:

As for the state’s interest in protecting private property and business, the judge pointed to existing laws against trespass, fraud and defamation, which do not trample free speech.

In an era where consumers demand greater transparency, the industry probably isn't doing itself any favors by engaging in public actions that make it appear as if there is something to hide.  

Regardless of how one feels about ag-gag laws, it might be useful to consider the consistency of one's stance on such issues.  For example, if you support ag gag laws, do you think it should also be illegal to film planned parenthood employees talking about the sale of aborted fetuses?  Should undercover videos of ACORN employees giving illegal advice be banned?  What about undercover reporting of activities of animal activist groups like PETA?