Last year a federal judge in Idaho ruled that a so-called “ag-gag law” – which prohibited undercover recordings from being filmed inside agricultural and food-processing plants – is unconstitutional. That good news for cows, chickens and pigs could spell bad news for Planned Parenthood.
The nation’s largest abortion provider last week filed a federal lawsuit against the Center for Medical Progress, claiming the group acted illegally by secretly recording videos in an effort to show that Planned Parenthood profits from selling the organs, limbs and tissue of the babies it aborts.
Not only will Planned Parenthood’s lawsuit backfire on the abortion business by drawing more attention to its grisly practices, it will also reveal the group’s total disdain for America’s long tradition of undercover journalism. Planned Parenthood, as the ruling in the Idaho “ag-gag” case shows, is trying to abort the First Amendment.
In 2012, the group Mercy for Animals shot an undercover video at an Idaho dairy farm showing cows being horribly abused. The video, which gained national attention, prompted the Idaho trade association that represents such dairy farms to draft and sponsor legislation that, among other acts, made it illegal to enter an agricultural facility “by misrepresentation or trespass” and make “audio or video recordings of the conduct of an agricultural production facility’s operations.”
During the legislative debate over the “ag-gag” bill, legislators excoriated the anti-animal-cruelty people who made the video. Mercy for Animals members were described as “self-appointed so-called investigators who masquerade as employees to infiltrate farms.” They were, in the words of one lawmaker, “vigilantes” who “assume[d] the role of prosecutor in the court of public opinion by publishing edited recordings and advocating that the farmer’s customers go elsewhere.”
“Edited recordings”? Where have we heard that before?
The legislation was adopted. Federal Judge B. Lynn Winmill, however, found the law to violate the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech and the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.
Judge Winmill, a Clinton appointee who in 2013 struck down Idaho’s Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, wrote in his decision, “The effect of the statute will be to suppress speech by undercover investigators and whistleblowers concerning topics of great public importance … Indeed, private party media investigations, such as investigative features on 60 Minutes, are a common form of politically salient speech.” He went on to cite the work of pioneering journalist Upton Sinclair who in the early 20th century misrepresented his identity to obtain a job in a meat packing plant and produced an expose that changed federal law. Sinclair, Judge Winmill noted, would today be subject to criminal prosecution under Idaho’s statute.
Indeed, undercover reporting has a long and lauded history in the United States. A database maintained by New York University collects famous and not-so-famous covert cases dating back to the 19th century. Reporter Geraldo Rivera’s covert videos from the infamous Willowbrook State School on Staten Island not only closed the school, but also led to major changes in the treatment of the developmentally disabled. As Judge Winmill noted, the CBS news magazine “60 Minutes” was a pioneer of the kind of “gotcha” journalism that also found expression when Gloria Steinem went undercover as a Playboy bunny.
But Planned Parenthood and its cohorts in the baby terminating/baby organ recycling business don’t like investigative journalism. When speaking of the Center for Medical Progress’s undercover videos, Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards condemns what she calls “the depravity of these tactics,” adding, “I’ve never seen anything as low.”
Well, neither have a lot of people, but the “low” in question is not the tactics used to obtain the videos – it’s the callous disregard for human life they reveal. That’s why the abortion lobby is in full damage control mode, doing all it can to deflect attention from Planned Parenthood workers who admit to killing babies in such a way as to preserve marketable organs for maximum value.
After the videos began rolling out in July, Planned Parenthood hired a high-powered public relations firm to try to protect what’s left of its image. Now the lawsuit filed in federal court in San Francisco claims no Planned Parenthood employees broke the law, although the videos certainly suggest otherwise.
Undercover journalism has a long tradition in the United States, one that should be celebrated and protected. Planned Parenthood, like other businesses with something to hide, doesn’t like this tradition. Fortunately for the rest of us, the Constitution does.