Lawsuit challenges Kansas 'ag-gag' law on free speech grounds
- Animal rights and consumer groups filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Kansas this week claiming a 1990 state law banning photography or videotaping at animal agriculture facilities without the owner's consent or under false pretenses is unconstitutional.
- Plaintiffs are the Animal Legal Defense Fund, Center for Food Safety, Public Justice and two Kansas-area animal farm organizations. They claim the state law violates the First Amendment and has deterred undercover investigations at animal facilities, including factory farms, for nearly three decades.
- "The Kansas Ag-Gag law has silenced whistleblowers seeking to protect animals from cruelty for far too long," Stephen Wells, executive director of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, said in a statement. "This unconstitutional law exists solely to protect the financial interests of industries that abuse animals, and it will not hold up in court." The Kansas attorney general's office told the Associated Press it hadn't yet been served with the lawsuit, but that it would defend the duly enacted statute.
The plaintiffs didn't say exactly why they're filing the suit against the Kansas law now. The state’s “ag-gag” law has been on the books since 1990, making it the oldest such law in the country. But it could be because there has been success in other states, both in getting similar laws passed and having them overturned in court.
Coalitions led by the Animal Legal Defense Fund have taken other states' ag-gag laws to court — including Utah and Idaho — and gotten parts of their statutes overturned. Similar lawsuits in Iowa and North Carolina are pending. Other states with ag-gag laws include Missouri, Montana and North Dakota, where it's possible similar legal complaints will be forthcoming.
According to the Animal Legal Defense Fund, Kansas is one of the major producers of cattle, swine and other animals raised for meat — and where many suffer from routine mutilations, intensive confinement and, ultimately, cruel slaughter.
"The law has successfully prevented whistleblowers from investigating the cruel conditions that millions of animals endure. Recent undercover investigations at animal agriculture facilities outside Kansas have uncovered cruel and illegal treatment of animals, as well as health and worker safety violations," the ALDF said in a statement.
Kansas has a significant number of poultry, swine and beef producers that are likely watching this lawsuit closely. One of the largest is Hormel Foods, which has a precooked bacon plant in Wichita that has been expanding production. Last year, Tyson Foods had planned to build a $300-million poultry processing facility near Tonganoxie, Kansas, but decided to relocate to Tennessee following local objection to the project. But Tyson said it was still considering sites in Kansas for future plants.
Poultry producers in Kansas might also be keeping an eye on this ag-gag litigation. The U.S. Department of Agriculture just posted sampling data indicating how facilities are doing in meeting federal salmonella standards for chicken parts and many slaughterhouses failed to meet the standard.
While four of them on that list are in Kansas, only S&S Quality Meats in Emporia received a category number. Its rating signifies establishments "that meets the maximum allowable percent positive but have results greater than 50% of the maximum allowable percent positive during the most recent completed 52-week moving window," the USDA said.
Results were listed as "NA" for three other Kansas poultry plants — Tyson Fresh Meats, Inc., of Emporia, Premier Custom Foods in Kansas City; and Krehbiels Specialty Meats, Inc., of McPherson — meaning federal inspectors "did not collect or analyze the minimum number of samples to categorize the establishment."
Food safety and consumer transparency were other reasons the plaintiffs' coalition gave for going after ag-gag laws. Members said documenting unsafe and unsanitary conditions at agricultural operations is crucial to maintaining food safety, which could help the plaintiffs' case.
"When officials fail to enforce food safety standards, private investigations can be the only way to alert consumers and prevent contaminated meat and eggs from entering the food supply," George Kimbrell, legal director of the Center for Food Safety, said in a statement.
- Associated Press Lawsuit: Kansas “Ag-Gag” law violates free speech rights