Pennsylvania Desperately Needs Rick Santorum Right Now

Here are eight words that I doubt have ever come from the pen of a liberal columnist:

"Where is Rick Santorum when we need him?"

This thought comes to mind as soon as one looks at PA HB683, a new bill introduced in Santorum's home state of Pennsylvania that would outlaw whistleblowing on factory farm cruelty. Sponsored by Representative Gary Haluska (D-Cambria) as a companion to a similar measure proposed by Senator Michael Brubaker (R-Lancaster), the potential new law is careful to include every conceivable scenario in which a concerned citizen, journalist, or employee could record and publicize animal abuse on agricultural operations — and then criminalizes such actions, placing them under the same title of the Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes that covers "arson, criminal mischief, and other property destruction."

The Keystone State is hardly alone in the movement to clamp down on free speech. As Big Agribusiness becomes increasingly concerned that public backlash against its inhumane treatment of livestock will ultimately result in government regulations, it has thrown its immense clout behind so-called "ag-gag" bills all over the nation. Anti-whistleblower laws have already been codified in Iowa and Utah, while similar statutes have been introduced in Arkansas, California, Indiana, Nebraska, Tennessee, and Vermont. While the particulars of these measures vary from state to state, all of them make it illegal to take a photograph or video of a factory farm without permission, obtain work on a factory farm for the purpose of investigating malpractice, or report potential abuses without abiding by unrealistically short timelines.The ultimate goal is clear — to make it practically impossible for the profits of Big Agribusiness to be compromised by unflattering public exposure. Had laws like these already been in place, the Tennessee horse breeding company Whittier Stables would never have faced legal trouble for burning the ankles of its show horses to "improve" their gait; Sparboe Farms, one of America's largest egg suppliers (including to McDonald's), wouldn't have had the world discover its practice of leaving rotting bird corpses in the same cages as its live hens and snapping off the beaks of chicks; and Wyoming Premium Farms, a meat supplier to Tyson Foods, would have avoided the firestorm that erupted when its employees were taped punching and kicking pigs and flinging piglets into the air. Needless to say, businesses that are capable of allowing and/or encouraging such conduct have an undeniable interest in clamping down on efforts to shed light on these types of incidents.

That said, even people who are indifferent to the cause of animal rights should be concerned about these bills. The past few decades have seen an unprecedented growth in the power of Big Agribusiness, with corporations like Monsanto flouting antitrust laws (to say nothing of Jeffersonian ideals) in ways that push family farms out of business and endangering public health through their use of genetically modified organisms and dangerous chemicals and pesticides. Indeed, President Obama himself continued this trend last month when he signed into law HR 933, a bill that protects large biotech agricultural corporations from litigation. With the new "ag-gag" bills, however, Big Agribusiness is finding ways to inure itself even to the stipulations of the Constitution, which — for those who need reminding — declares in the First Amendment that government shall in no way abridge "freedom of speech, or of the press." These laws are symptomatic of the ominous national trend of Big Agribusiness gaining too much power in this country, to the point that seemingly common sense approaches toward controlling them suddenly become front-and-center political issues.

This brings us back to Rick Santorum. As Republican voters learned to their surprise during last year's presidential election, Santorum developed a reputation in the Senate as a staunch proponent of animal rights, from fighting to end (and, when that failed, regulate) puppy mills and working to establish a "three strikes" system for violators of the Animal Welfare Act to voting for the defunding of inspections of facilities that butchered horses, de facto eliminating horse slaughtering altogether. As he explained when confronted about his views, "I am a pet owner who believes they (animals) should be treated humanely, not someone who ties them to the top of a car." After dispensing with his obligatory swipe at Mitt Romney, Santorum then elaborated that he had "always believed that a commitment to the humane treatment of animals must be balanced with strong protections for licensed small animal breeders and large animal agriculture operators who function ethically to do so without onerous and unreasonable government regulations."

The key phrase in that sentence is "who function ethically." After all, one doesn't need to support large-scale regulation of our farming sector (to say nothing of the excesses of outright state control) in order to believe that stronger protections for animal rights should be implemented. If these companies were willing to behave ethically, there wouldn't be any need for journalists and whistleblowers to shame them for engaging in animal cruelty. Unfortunately, the very fact that Big Agribusiness wishes to suppress public information about their activities is proof that unethical practices are rampant within the industry today. This is all the more reason why we need to stand behind the First Amendment rights of those who have fought to spread truth so far — and why animal rights supporters everywhere can lament, perhaps to their surprise, that Rick Santorum isn't here when we need him.

How much do you trust the information in this article?

Matthew Rozsa

is a Ph.D. student in history at Lehigh University as well as a political columnist. His editorials have been published in "The Morning Call," "The Express-Times," "The Newark Star-Ledger," "The Baltimore Sun," and various college newspapers and blogs. I actively encourage people to reach out to me at matt.rozsa@gmail.com.

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