Matthew Liebman, “Ag-Gag” Laws


matthew-liebman-headshot-IEMatthew Liebman is a senior attorney in the litigation program and works on all aspects of ALDF’s civil cases, including investigating reports of animal cruelty, conducting legal research, developing new legal theories, and appearing in court. He has litigated cases including ALDF v. Conyers, which resulted in the rescue of more than 100 dogs from a North Carolina hoarder; ALDF v. Keating, in which seven horses were saved from starvation; and Animal Place v. Cheung, which seeks justice for 50,000 hens abandoned without food by egg farmers. Matthew’s writing has appeared in the Animal Law Review, the Journal of Animal Law, the Stanford Environmental Law Journal, and the Animal Legal & Historical Web Center. With Bruce Wagman, Matthew co-authored A Worldview of Animal Law, which examines how the legal systems of different countries govern our interactions with animals.

Before coming to ALDF, Matthew clerked for the Honorable Warren J. Ferguson of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Matthew graduated with distinction from Stanford Law School in 2006 and with highest honors from the University of Texas at Austin in 2001 with a degree in philosophy. While a law student at Stanford, Matthew co-founded a chapter of the Student Animal Legal Defense Fund and was an active member of Animal Rights on the Farm, where he worked on campaigns against factory farming and vivisection. He lives with his human companion and their five feline companions Kitty Kitty, Ollie, Emma, Spider, and Niecey.


Caryn Hartglass: Hello everybody! I am Caryn Hartglass, you are listening to It’s All About Food. Yeah, we’ve got a good show today! I just can’t wait to get into it. I’m feeling really good right now. You know, I always like to talk about the weather and here in New York City it’s summer time and it’s been kind of hot and unpleasant but today we had a little rain in the morning. For those of you out in drought lands, you know I don’t want to rub it in that we have some water here, but we did have a little rain and what’s especially lovely about the rain for me is I live next to a park. The park, about ten years ago, was a really nice place, but somehow it’s changed over the last few years where we have a lot more screaming of all ages and it doesn’t sound as a happy place, but maybe it is. Maybe I’m just misinterpreting the noises, but when it rains it’s quiet and I’ve really been enjoying a nice day today with a little peace and quiet, but now it’s dried up a little bit so maybe the screaming will start again real soon. Okay, I want to bring on my first guest. I am so excited to talk about what we are going to be talking about. This is really incredible news that we all need to be discussing and sharing. Mathew Liebman is a senior attorney in the litigation program at the Animal League Defense Fund. He is involved in all aspects of the ALDF civil cases including investigating reports of animal cruelty, conducting legal research, developing new legal theories, and appearing in courts. He has litigated cases including ALDF versus Conyers, which resulted in the rescue of more than one hundred dogs form a North Carolina hoarder and another case in which seven horses were saved from starvation. Animal Place versus Chung, which seeks justice for fifty thousand hens abandoned without food by egg farmers. Mathew’s writing has appeared in The Animal Law Review, The Journal of Animal Law, The Stanford Environmental Law Journal, and The Animal Legal and Historical Web Center with Bruce Wagman. Mathew co-authored a world’s view of animal law which examines how the legal systems of different countries govern our interaction with animals. So much more about Mathew, you can read that at my site Meanwhile, welcome to It’s All About Food Mathew!

Mathew Liebman: Hi, thanks for having me on!

Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, thank you for taking the time. I know you’ve been really busy, especially with this recent ruling in Idaho, which I want to talk quite a bit about.

Mathew Liebman: Yeah!

Caryn Hartglass: So, before we get started I want to give you a big round of applause, you and your entire team for doing-

Mathew Liebman: Thank you very much!

Caryn Hartglass: for doing incredible work.

Mathew Liebman: Yeah, definitely a team effort.

Caryn Hartglass: This is really important and I hope you’ve taken the time to just like take it all in and celebrate for a moment.

Mathew Liebman: We have, yes.

Caryn Hartglass: Oh good, because sometimes you know when we are involved in some things, it just gets so crazy that there is never really a moment to take it all in and enjoy what you’ve accomplished and we need to do that for our own sanity.

Mathew Liebman: Yeah, you are absolutely right. An animal law is definitely a challenging field and to have big wins like this can seem rare.

Caryn Hartglass: Okay, so before we get to the big win of last week, I want to talk about these ag-gag laws and how our wonderful justice system possibly could have approved this type of legislation. Can you give me a little history?

Mathew Liebman: Sure! So ag-gag laws are essentially- make it a crime to conduct an undercover investigation at an agricultural facility, which is typically read to mean factory farm or slaughterhouse. Basically an industry coordinated response to a recent trend over the last decade or so, there have been maybe a hundred undercover investigations at factory farms and slaughterhouses and every single one of them has revealed horrific animal suffering and that can be anything from malicious and sadistic cruelty, like workers punching or kicking animals for no reason, but also things that are common and prevalent throughout the industry, like intensive confinement of hens in battery cages or pregnant sows and tiny gestation crates. Obviously when these investigations come out, they reveal things that the industry would much rather keep hidden from the public and so their coordinated response has been to approach state legislatures and have them introduce these ag-gag bills which essentially, rather than going after you know, trying to find a way to stop the animal cruelty to instead shut up the activists and put them in prison for trying to show the American public what really happens on these farms.

Caryn Hartglass: I guess I don’t understand how those things get passed.

Mathew Liebman: Yeah, you know-

Caryn Hartglass: You know we’re all about free-freedom of speech and I don’t know, we seem to have a romance with whistleblowers in this country. It’s hard to believe, but its happened that these things get passed.

Mathew Liebman: Yeah, yeah there are eight states that have passed ag-gag laws and these are not surprisingly mostly heavily agricultural states, ones with a very effective ag lobby that spends a lot of money lobbying politicians and so, I guess we shouldn’t be too surprised when pro-industry bills get introduced.

Caryn Hartglass: Okay so you went to Idaho and filed a complaint and won.

Mathew Liebman: That’s right! Yeah, last Monday we finally got the decision and this case is filed last year essentially challenging their ag-gag law under various provisions of the constitution. We just got the decision on Monday, last Monday, ruling in our favor.

Caryn Hartglass: Now, I don’t watch a lot of television but occasionally I watch these programs that show different court proceedings with lawyers and they’re very dramatic and things happen at the last minute and people are running around trying to find information. Was this anything like what we see on television?

Mathew Liebman: Last Monday wasn’t. That was, you know I was just in my office and got word that the court had issued this opinion. So, you know the kind of drama we see on TV is obviously fictionalized and a bit more condense then how it happens, but that’s not to say this case hasn’t been interesting to litigate. We’ve had certainly been in court and Boise on a couple of occasions. Arguing our case to the judge in fairly packed rooms with very interested reporters and numbers of other political interest groups and farmers and even the legislatures that introduced these bills for coming to the hearings to see how- to see what was going to happen to their law. So there were moments of excitement and interest, but last Monday was, you know, we just got word that the judge had issued his opinion and we were reading it on our computers like everybody else.

Caryn Hartglass: I read the opinion, it’s pretty amazing! Did you have any idea during the proceedings that it was going to go this way?

Mathew Liebman: We were optimistic. I think our intuitions were similar to yours that there is just no way that a bill or a law, that’s prime intent was to silence half of the debate on a significant public issue, could possibly pass constitutional muster. We had- there was an earlier stage in the litigation, what’s called a motion to dismiss, where the state had tried to have our lawsuit dismissed on various procedural and legal grounds. The ruling on the motion to dismiss strongly suggested that the judge was seeing things our way, but that was a preliminary motion and so he didn’t rule in our favor at that point, but we had suggestions that he saw this law as violating the constitution in the same way we did. So, we filed what’s called a motion summary judgment, which the judge granted and that’s the decision that you have.

Caryn Hartglass: Now is this going to stick or do you think- will there be any appealing? Can that be done at this level?

Mathew Liebman: It can be done. We don’t have any indication one way or another whether the states going to appeal. I know that the ag lobby in Idaho is the strong pushing the attorney general to appeal to the main circuit and if that happens, we are certainly ready and willing to go the distance. We think that the judges on the main circuit will see things the way judge Winmill did in this case and agree that the statute violates both the 1st Amendment and the 14th Amendment of the Constitution.

Caryn Hartglass: Well, anybody who is not familiar with any of this, if you just know that these facilities where they’re raising animals are closed to anyone. Some of these are just like these giant warehouses with no windows in some cases. You can’t see anything and you wonder why that is. It’s because nobody wants to see what’s inside. Even the workers that are inside, not just the non human animals, but the human animals are treated horribly as well.

Mathew Liebman: Yeah, that’s absolutely right and I think that’s why these ag-gag laws have brought together a pretty wide ranging coalition of public interest and organizations. I mean our lawsuit was not just the Animal Legal Defense Fund and other animal rights groups. You know, we had people for the ethical treatment of animals and farm sanctuaries, but we also had groups like the ACLU of Idaho. We had environmental organizations like Western Watersheds Project and a lot of other groups from different communities. You know, journalists were outraged about this statute and farm worker protection groups were outraged as well. As you say, you know these are low paid workers that are often treated horribly and if one of them, you know, wants to pull out their cell phone and take video of the horrible working conditions, they’re subjected to. They shouldn’t go to prison for doing so.

Caryn Hartglass: Exactly! Now one of the things I loved in the Declaration or in the ruling was a reference to the author Upton Sinclair and his book The Jungle which came out in the early 20th century and because of that fictional book which was based on a lot of horrible things that are actually going on in meat packing plants in Chicago, we got the Pure Food and Drug Act and Federal Meat Inspection Act. We’ve got good legislation that improved our food system and it pointed out that Upton Sinclair, had he been around today with ag-gag laws, could have been criminalized.

Mathew Liebman: Yeah, that’s exactly right! That was a good point that the judge made in his decision and you know, one of the ways that- one of the things that ag-gag laws criminalized are gaining access to a facility by misrepresentation and a lot of the ways undercover investigations take place is someone will go and apply for a job, but not disclose that they’re affiliated with an animal rights organization or not disclose that they’re a journalist. They go and they do the job, they’re not sort of slacking or depriving the owner of the farm of anything, they’re not stealing, but in the course of doing their job, document things and ask questions and that’s how these investigations take place. If you make it a crime to lie on an implement application, then you’re essentially shutting down these investigations and that’s how Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle. You know, he went in as an employee without disclosing who he was or what his intentions were and obviously we all reap the benefits of his having done that through landmark federal legislation that has been crucial to food safety.

Caryn Hartglass: Okay so I’m going to turn the subject around a little bit. This is kind of related. I don’t know how familiar you are with it, but I’m just wondering how you feel about what’s been going on with Planned Parenthood recently because there were some undercover videos and now they’re turning against Planned Parenthood and there was even a Los Angeles court that was banning future videos until further notice coming out from this particular group that was doing undercover work. Now, I’m on the left side in general in my politics and I believe Planned Parenthood is doing good work so I wasn’t really happy when these videos came out, even though I know they’ve been edited and misconstrued, whatever. Did they have that right to do that under the constitution with free speech?

Mathew Liebman: I can’t say. I don’t know the facts well enough to say whether or not they had the right to that. I mean, I will say that you know, if we have a commitment to the values of the First Amendment that that should apply regardless of what the subject matter is and so I’m also on the left but, you know I don’t think judges should be prohibiting the release of information. You know, Judge Winmill makes the point in this ag-gag decision that the solution to speech you don’t like is more speech. I think Planned Parenthood has every right to come out and say, you know, ‘these conversations are taken out of context, here’s you know, what this conversation was really about’. You know, under democratic society, having that conversation is significant and the cure for speech you don’t like is more speech. So, I would not support sort of preemptive bands on the release of information. I think the better solution is for people to have a conversation about what’s wrong with those videos, if they’re misleadingly edited or you know, to try to get more context about what’s been left out of the videos. Certainly, you know the meat industry is welcome to do that if they want to look at these videos and say, you know, these practices are defensible for these reasons. They’re welcome to do that and we’ll have an open public debate about it but we can’t have-

Caryn Hartglass: –and we’ll let people come into our facilities in see for themselves, right?! That’s what they should be doing.

Mathew Liebman: Yeah!

Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, we know what we’d find unfortunately. Okay, now there- you said there were eight states, so I imagine you’re going to be on the path attacking another state pretty soon if not already.

Mathew Liebman: Yeah, we already have a case going in Utah challenging their ag-gag statute so, you know, that case is moving forward. It’s unclear what’s going to happen in Idaho. If there’s an appeal obviously we’ll have to spend resources on that. So, I don’t know whether we’re going to be, you know, going after another state in the near future. It’s certainly a possibility and those other six states that we haven’t sued? (16:27) yet are definitely ones that we’re scrutinizing and trying to figure out what our next best step is, but I would say that none of them are exempt from constitutional scrutiny.

Caryn Hartglass: Do you – are you involved at all or do you have an opinion on the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act? That’s another goodie that’s been out and about for a number of years.

Mathew Liebman: Yeah, yeah that’s, you know, one of these statutes that was passed essentially turning some forms of activism, even you know, some forms of what we think of as traditional protest activity lumping them under the umbrella as terrorism and I think that’s extremely problematic. You know, these ag-gag laws go much further than the ATA does but you know, ATA is something that the Animal Legal Defense Fund opposed when it was a bill and it’s, I mean we are disappointing to see that the constitutional challenges to that statue so far it hasn’t succeeded.

Caryn Hartglass: Yes, well I mean the idea of labeling someone a terrorist who is trying to fight the terrorism is a scary thing. I don’t support any kind of violence and I know that that’s how that act came about or was strengthened because of some violent acts that unfortunately shouldn’t happen. It shouldn’t have happened. Nobody was hurt, but a lot of people got scared. I like going the route that you’re doing, fighting with the law and bringing sense and clarity until people get it.


Caryn Hartglass: Okay, everybody! Hi I’m Caryn Hartglass, you’re listening to It’s All About Food! We had a brief interruption there and a little technological glitch. Maybe it’s the rain, I’m not sure what it is but we’re back, and Mathew you’re back!

Mathew Liebman: Yes, sorry about that.

Caryn Hartglass: Okay, no problem! I’m glad everything is okay! What I wanted to know is how a nice guy like you ended up in a place like The Animal League Defense Fund, which is great! I mean we need more great attorneys fighting the fight for the voiceless and what geared you to do that?

Mathew Liebman: Yeah, well my journey to animal rights started when I was a teenager. I had a pet bird who I was told could- he’d just eat whatever I was eating in addition to his regular pellets and fruit and vegetables. I was eating chicken one day and went to give him some and sort of had this weird realization that the chicken- it seems kind of cannibalistic and then it sort of dawned on me that if this chicken was so close to him that he shouldn’t eat it that maybe yeah, I shouldn’t eat it either, given the strong bond in friendship that we had. After opening my eyes to the, you know, obvious reality that meat comes from animals and I became a vegetarian shortly after that. In college, I was a philosophy major. In a first year philosophy class, I read Peter Singer’s “Animal Liberation” and that helped crystallize things and started getting me thinking more philosophically about animal issues and you know, continued to do a lot of reading in animal ethics. I was waying (20:25) going to grad school in philosophy and getting a PhD and continuing to focus on animal ethics versus going to law school and getting a GED and I thought that maybe I could do a little more good. Practically speaking, I changed more in animal blood if I went to law school rather than grad school so I went to law school knowing that I wanted to do animal law and made some connections with folks at the Animal Legal Defense Fund and after I graduated, I did a courtship with the judge for a year and then came straight here and been here for almost 8 years.

Caryn Hartglass: Wow, well it’s wonderful that you’re there and that they have you and that you’re able to do this great work. Thank you for that.

Mathew Liebman: Yeah! Yeah and I’m very lucky to be doing the work that I’m doing. It’s gratifying and I think makes a difference.

Caryn Hartglass: There’s a lot of work to be done unfortunately.

Mathew Liebman: That’s true, for sure!

Caryn Hartglass: I wish we had more attorneys that were interested in fighting the fight for the rights and for the voiceless rather than making a lot of money.

Mathew Liebman: Yeah! Yeah and you know, people- there’s lots of ways for people to support us. People who are already lawyers to sign up to be part of our pro bono work if they want to help contribute to some cases in need. Even people who aren’t lawyers can sign up for action alerts and follow us on Facebook and Twitter and tend to our website and find out what people can do to help animals.

Caryn Hartglass: Now it’s been a week since this ag-gag law in Idaho has been declared unconstitutional. What’s the response been since that time?

Mathew Liebman: Overwhelmingly positive! In fact, I just got an e-mail today from someone who teaches at The University of Idaho’s agriculture program, thanking us for bringing the lawsuit and congratulating us on our win. Yeah, I mean almost everyone I’ve talked to has been surprised that such a thing could pass and relief that the courts where willing to strike it down.

Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, it’s fabulous! I have- I want to have faith in the justice system and I want to believe the good will prevail but so much has happened where it’s just so frustrating, but you know occasionally something wonderful happens and I want to think that we’re slowly but surely moving in a very very positive direction.

Mathew Liebman: I think that’s right I mean you know, the legal system has usually lagged behind a little bit. It’s I think by nature conservative institution, just because so much is based on presidents and what’s happened before and what the law is rather than what it should be. I think with- there are cases where we can make progress and I think this is one them.

Caryn Hartglass: So do you have any long term plans? do you see yourself on the supreme court? Do you think we’ll get some animal friendly lawyers on the supreme court one day?

Mathew Liebman: I’d like to think one day. I know that I would never make it through the confirmation process, so I don’t have any judicial aspirations myself, but I’ve known some really, really amazing judges. Like I said, I clerked before I came to ALDS and the judge i clerked for, who has sadly passed away, was you know, when I was working for him, an 83 year old white guy, but he got these issues. He was incredibly compassionate and progressive and I think if had the right animal kit come before him, you know he would give it a fair shot and strive to do justice. I think you know, those judges are not especially common but they’re out there. I know of at least one vegan judge and you know, this decision in Idaho shows that even judges in places that we might think of as conservative are willing to do the right thing and honor the constitution when the case comes before them.

Caryn Hartglass: Okay, I have one more question. When you’re working really hard on a case, what are you eating?

Mathew Liebman: Well I’m a vegan myself, you know the first rule of legal ethics is ‘don’t eat your clients’ and I’m generally a pretty healthy eater so today it’s brown rice and tempeh and chard.

Caryn Hartglass: Nice! Excellent, I’m really glad to hear that and that’s probably what gives you a lot of energy and clarity. I just remembered recently that during a lot of governmental meetings, I think it was when they were trying to figure out how to deal with this Iran nuclear policy stuff, somebody documented what everybody was eating and it was a disaster, all kinds of candy and junk food. I mean, you just can’t do anything right when you’re eating like that.

Mathew Liebman: Yeah, I will say that they just, not far from our office, opened up a vegan fast food restaurant, Amy’s Drive Thru, and so I had a burger and fries and vegan milkshake that were actually pretty good.

Caryn Hartglass: Nice, that sounds good. Well it can’t be- it’s got to be a lot better than the animal variety.

Mathew Liebman: Yes that’s for sure.

Caryn Hartglass: Okay, well I don’t hear my theme song, I hear the Mr. Softy theme song outside, but that’s a good time to say thank you very much for joining me on It’s All About Food and keep up the great great work!

Mathew Liebman: Thank you so much, I appreciate you for having me on!
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, thanks Mathew! All right, let’s take a little break while the Mr. Softee truck is going around my neighborhood! I’m not promoting Mr. Softee, he’s just always here. All right, we’ll take a little break and then we’re going to be back with Robin Lamont. I’m really looking forward to speaking with her about her new book The Trap.

Transcribed by Cassandra Maldonado, 8/25/2015

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