A clandestine video showing Tennessee Walking Horses being tortured in the guise of "training" was released to the public by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) a few days ago, and the images have incensed just about everyone who has seen them. The public outrage is well-placed. Trainers who abuse their animals are criminals and their methods despicable.

Kudos to HSUS for uncovering the abuse and for reminding us that there’s still a lot of work to be done.

The fact that some Walking Horse trainers continue to heap abuse on the horses in their care simply to win ribbons and make a few dollars shouldn’t surprise anyone. It’s been going on for a long time, acknowledged with a wink and a nod. Nor should we be surprised that soring continues 40 years after federal legislation was passed to eliminate the practice. The Horse Protection Act has been underfunded, poorly enforced, and largely ineffective.

The subject of the HSUS video isn’t the subject of this column, however. Attacks on the method of exposing the abuse is.

According to HSUS, the incriminating video was recorded during a period of several weeks last year at Whittier Stables, a Tennessee farm operated by nationally prominent trainer Jackie McConnell. The trainer presumably didn’t know that he and his employees were on camera and they almost certainly didn’t give their permission for the taping. Undercover investigations like this one can be a necessary part of investigative reporting, but they’re going to become more problematic if state laws are passed to protect the privacy of horse farms and other agricultural operations.

Anti-Whistleblowing

So-called "ag-gag" legislation was passed earlier this year in Iowa and Utah and similar bills are in the works in several other states, largely in response to undercover investigations that exposed animal abuse on large "factory farms" or in slaughter facilities. The idea behind the legislation is to restrict the ability of activists to conduct clandestine reporting at farms and other agricultural facilities.

State Sen. Joe Seng, a sponsor of the legislation in Iowa, recently defended the new law on National Public Radio:

"Agriculture is one of our most important industries," Sen. Seng said. "It’s sort of a protection mechanism saying that we do not want to put up with this in our state."

Put up with what, exactly?

Interestingly, Sen. Seng didn’t address the animal abuse that the investigations sometimes uncover, leading to the inevitable question of just what—and who—the law actually protects.

Critics have a different take on the gag laws, arguing that they infringe on the guarantees of free speech and a free press found in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Aside from the constitutional issues is the supposed need for secrecy about farm operations.

"This new statute only reinforces the idea that Iowa’s farms have something to hide," according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Legislation that would have made it illegal to make photographs or video recordings on a farm without the owner’s permission never made it out of the Iowa Senate last year. This year’s legislation takes a more subtle, backdoor approach, but that doesn’t make the law any more palatable. Rather than directly limit the right to report on agricultural activities, the Iowa law makes it a misdemeanor for a job applicant to lie on an application for a farm job if the real intent of the employment is to harm the business. Penalties include up to a year in jail and a $1,500 fine.

The driving force behind ag-gag laws seems to be farmers and sympathetic legislators who think agricultural operations are being unfairly targeted by animal rights activists. But a farm is a farm, whether the business is raising cattle or hogs, or supposedly training Tennessee Walking Horses. The whistleblower who recorded the activities at Whittier Stables in Tennessee most likely would be subject to criminal prosecution for his efforts if Tennessee had an ag-gag law similar to Iowa’s on the books. Unless, of course, the undercover videographer indicated on the job application that the intent of employment actually was to expose abuse of horses at the farm, which isn’t likely.

Legislation that restricts whistleblowing is offensive to me, both as a journalist and as an individual concerned with animal welfare. If your state is considering legislation to restrict undercover investigations of agricultural operations, whether or not the law states the real purpose of its backers, make sure you know what you’re getting before deciding to support the effort.

Does the public have a right to know what goes on behind farm gates, even if it takes a violation of someone’s privacy rights?