Each month, One Green Planet tracks major legal developments that are improving (or, in some instances, threatening) the lives and well-being of animals.

October 2022 was a busy month for animal law. The Supreme Court of the United States heard arguments in two cases with direct impacts on animals. Tofurky successfully challenged a “Tag-Gag” law in Arkansas. But the most exciting win came in a small, criminal trial in rural Utah, where a jury acquitted animal activists for rescuing two baby pigs.

1. Utah Jury Acquits Activists for Rescuing Baby Pigs

In 2017, Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) investigated a facility owned by Smithfield/WH Group, the world’s largest pork producer.  The footage documents “row after row of mother pigs crammed inside gestation crates barely bigger than their bodies,” and “piles of dead piglets covered in their mothers’ feces.”  In the process of investigating, the DxE activists rescued two baby pigs—both on the verge of dying.  The investigation, as covered by the New York Times, became known as “Operation Deathstar.”

Source: Direct Action Everywhere – DxE/YouTube

“Operation Deathstar” blew up in the media when the FBI started searching for the two missing piglets–whose economic value was, at most, $42.50.  It blew up further when, shortly after, Utah prosecutors charged the activists with a slew of criminal offenses.

The case, leading up to the trial, is an exciting story in itself.  The prosecution dropped several charges before trial–most notably, a charge that required the prosecution to prove disruption of a “lawful” operation.  The activists argued that they were not guilty of the charges because Smithfield’s operation was not lawful–and they demanded documents about Smithfield to prove as much.  The prosecution backed down, likely to conceal evidence of Smithfield’s operations.

Nevertheless, at trial, the activists faced charges of theft and felony burglary.  Both activists faced notable prison sentences for these charges.  And the judge made the trial an uphill battle for the activists, precluding them from entering their videos as evidence—or even from discussing the horrors of Smithfield’s operations—to explain their motives.

Despite this handicap, Wayne Hsiung, who defended himself at trial, appealed to the jury’s morals.  Of course, he offered legal reasons for the jury to acquit him.  He explained that, as a legal matter, he did not commit a crime because he did not have an “intent” to steal–just to capture footage and to rescue dying animals.  And he explained that, also as a legal matter, he did not commit a crime because the pigs he stole had no economic value–they were dying, and if anything, could have spread disease and lost money for Smithfield.  But the point Wayne hammered home was that saving dying piglets was not a crime.  It was an act of compassion.  And he kept faith that a judge or jury can almost always find a legal path to the correct moral outcome.

You can watch a piece of Wayne’s closing statement here.

The jury deliberated for eight hours.  Then, in a beautiful and shocking moment, they acquitted the activists.

2. Supreme Court Hears Prop 12 Argument

On October 11, 2022, the Supreme Court heard an argument in National Pork Producers Council v. Ross, one of the rare animal welfare cases to reach the Court.  You can read more about that case here. In short, the Justices will resolve whether California’s “Prop 12” violates the Constitution.  Prop 12 prohibits the sale of pork in California if sows were confined in cruel conditions–namely gestation crates.  The consensus in the legal community seems to be that, based on the argument, it’s difficult to predict the outcome of the case.  When the opinion comes down, you can read about it here on One Green Planet.

3. Supreme Court Hears Argument About the Clean Water Act

On the same day as the Prop 12 argument, the Supreme Court heard another huge case for animals.  This case, Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency, will determine the scope of the Clean Water Act.

The Clean Water Act is one of the nation’s strongest environmental protections.  Its broad purpose is to restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.  And maintaining clean waters is necessary to protect the wildlife that depends on these waters for survival.

Sackett will decide which wetlands are covered by the Clean Water Act’s protections.

4. Tofurky Wins Battle Over Arkansas Tag-Gag Law

Tag-Gag laws are laws that censor the speech of vegan companies.  For the most part, these laws restrict the companies’ use of words like “beef” or “milk”–words traditionally associated with animal products. The restrictions make it incredibly hard for companies to market plant-based products.  (Imagine trying to market a plant-based replacement for “shrimp” if you couldn’t use the word shrimp!)  You can read about more Tag-Gag laws here, here, and here on One Green Planet.  Arkansas is one state with a Tag-Gag law, and last month, a court held that the law violated Tofurky’s right to commercial speech under the First Amendment.

For previous Animal Law Updates on One Green Planet:

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