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PETA Forced to Hold Restricted Screening of Animal Abuse Film at the Kansas State Fair

Fracas over the film is yet another chapter in the fight between animal rights groups and Big Ag

At the annual Kansas State Fair in Hutchinson, KS, which kicked off on Labor Day and continues through this coming Sunday, there are all kinds of animals on show — whinnying horses, snorting pigs, mooing cows, clucking chicken, and even an “exotic animal petting zoo” with a giant turtle, a llama, and a giraffe. Cute, right? There’s all sorts of food being peddled, too, including dishes featuring what was once Bessie-the-cow or Porky-the-pig.

chicken display at fair Photo by Eric WittmanThe poultry barn at the 2010 Kansas State Fair. The annual fair, which has a strong agricultural focus,
has all kinds of livestock and cattle on show.

But officials at the fair, which is celebrating its hundredth year and attracts some 350,000 visitors, have been a little squeamish about letting people view the process that lands bits of Bessie or Porky on their plates. Which is why the lone People for Ethical Treatment of Animals booth at the fair has been screening a film that shows scenes of animal slaughter with the TV screen turned away from the public walking past. 

The 13-minute film, called Glass House, shows graphic scenes of animal slaughter at factory farms shot by undercover PETA activists. It’s narrated by singer Paul McCartney.

PETA had initially planned to display the video outside their booth so that everyone walking by could see it.  But worried about offending customers, or perhaps about having visitors walk by the PETA stall and suddenly choke on their hot dogs or hamburgers, Kansas Fair Board informed the animal rights group last month that its film couldn’t be displayed openly and should only be shown to people who make “a conscious choice” to view it.

PETA filed a lawsuit in response arguing that restricting the viewing was a violation of the group’s First Amendment right to free speech. But on September 4 the US District Court that heard the suit sided with the fair organizers and ruled that the fair is a "limited public forum" since the exhibitors have pay for the booths. District Judge J. Thomas Marten held that fair officials had acted reasonably in requiring PETA to shield people walking by its booth from the horrific images.

But fairgoers are choosing to look, often simply because they are intrigued by the much publicized tussle over the film’s showing, say PETA activists. “Of course it’s drawing people. It’s like the Wizard of Oz telling Dorothy she can't look behind the curtain,” Jeff Kerr, PETA’s general counsel told me yesterday. “People want to see what the fair is trying so desperately to hide. They understand that it’s hypocritical to treat some animals with respect and not others.”

Kerr said the pro-vegetarian group was “still considering” its legal alternatives, including taking the suit to the US Court of Appeals. (While the Judge Marten agreed with the fair board on restricted viewing of the film at the event, he denied a motion by Kansas state to dismiss PETA’s lawsuit in its entirety)

“The issue of restricting our right to speak freely isn’t limited to the Kansas State Fair, this is related to defending our right to free speech,” Kerr said. “People have a right to know where their food is coming from and how it’s treated. If cows and pigs are being beaten and kicked by workers and have their throats cut while they are still alive, people should know about it.”

This is the second time PETA, which plans to show the film at state fairs across the country, has run into trouble over its screening. In Iowa, the group was expelled from the state fair temporarily earlier this year after fair officials objected to a profanity in the video. PETA deleted the word from subtitles in the video but it stayed in the audio, Kerr said. The group has now decided not to show the film at the forthcoming state fair in Utah and focus on one-on-one conversation instead, a move that Kerr insists is unrelated.

This fracas over the film is yet another chapter in the fight between animal rights groups that seek to uncover animal abuse in industrial agricultural facilities and Big Ag’s efforts to thwart such efforts. (Read about how Big Ag is pushing laws to silence its critics in the Journal’s current issue)

I can understand why fair organizers in agricultural states might be wary of showing the film. It doesn’t paint a pretty picture of the agricultural industry. I found the film hard to view beyond the first minute. You can see it on YouTube, though it’s been “age-restricted” and I’m embedding a copy below. Be warned: it can be traumatic. But the kind of undercover footage shown serves a critical purpose — it reveals some ugly truths about our food system and about what kind of food lands on our plates.

Exposes at factory farms by undercover activists from animal welfare groups like PETA, The Humane Society of United States, and Mercy for Animals have played a vital role in revealing animal abuse and food safety issues at Big Ag facilities. They have led to the closure of farming facilities, nationwide meat and egg recalls and, in some cases, criminal convictions.

We might not all agree with PETA’s vegetarian/vegan ethic but it’s important that we support its monitoring of Big Ag.  Because, as Amanda Hitt, director of the Government Accountability Project’s Food Integrity Campaign says: “The ability to tell the truth is a remedy for most ills.”

Here's the PETA film:

Maureen Nandini Mitra, Managing Editor, Earth Island Journal.Maureen Nandini Mitra photo
In addition to her work at the Journal, Maureen writes for several other magazines and online publications in the US and India. A journalism graduate from Columbia University, her work has appeared in the San Francisco Public Press, The New Internationalist, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, The Caravan and Down to Earth.

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