The New York Times Misleads on Undercover Video Proposals

Animal liberation activists, such as employees of the Humane Society of the United States, have gone undercover at farms. While they’ve on occasion documented cruelty, they’ve also abused the means to this end and earned tough scrutiny from lawmakers, who are now trying to regulate undercover operations by requiring activists who film animal cruelty to notify the authorities within 24-48 hours.

Consider just one example: An HSUS activist filmed—for six weeks—in the fall of 2007 at a California plant and filmed things that could have had food safety implications. But HSUS didn’t report it to the government in a timely manner. In fact, the USDA, which administers humane slaughter regulations, didn’t find out about the footage until two months after filming stopped and the video footage had been leaked to the media. Maximum media coverage serves HSUS’s private interest, but not the public’s. Stopping animal cruelty quickly should be the primary goal.

The New York Times exposed HSUS CEO Wayne Pacelle’s P.R. game around the California investigation. The paper needs an equally skeptical look at some of the rhetoric being tossed about in the current debate.

An op-ed in the paper yesterday proposes a new solution on dealing with farm practices: Require slaughterhouses to have live video feeds that can be viewed online by those who choose to. There are troubling implications of this argument—Should we televise executions? Should we put cameras in newsrooms to weed out journalistic bias?—plus there’s a flat-out false statement in the piece. The author, referring to previous undercover work at a slaughterhouse, writes, “Today, under legislation being pushed by business interests, that bit of journalistic adventure could earn me a criminal conviction and land me on a registry of ‘animal and ecological terrorists.’”

There is no such registry being proposed today—a fact that the author acknowledged after we emailed him. But it is reflective of a false narrative being pushed by opponents of a duty to report that creates standards for undercover investigations (which is not “criminalizing” or “gagging” investigations, either). In their desperation to avoid any responsibility to turn over animal cruelty footage to law enforcement, activists have resorted to the claim that the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative group, is somehow nefariously behind all this. That’s phonier than a soy burger.

In 2003, ALEC proposed model legislation that would have created a terrorist registry for activists. That was also a different time—those days, the FBI was calling animal/environmental extremists groups like the Animal Liberation Front domestic terror threats because of their illegal activities.

Here’s a copy of that model legislation, and here’s a copy of a 2006 federal law that seems to be based largely on it. Note, however, that the federal law does not establish a terrorist registry. (Side note: This law was recently upheld in federal court.)

In contrast, a number of the laws proposed today simply require a duty to report. Read this Tennessee bill. Pretty straightforward.

Really, these reporting laws have nothing to do with anything that ALEC proposed—for ALEC never advised creating a duty to report that we can find. So this whole charade of a vast right-wing conspiracy is nothing more than a ruse by left-wing activists to divide and create noise.

There’s enough of that hysteria going around U.S. politics as it is—and it’s compounded by the hysteria of HSUS and others ranting on and on about how a duty to report will harm whistleblowers. It won’t. It just gets the real authorities involved early on, folks who know a thing or two about evidence collection, and doesn’t give animal liberation activists carte blanche to film for weeks or months while animals are abused.

Is that such a bad thing?