04/25/2013 05:40 pm ET Updated Jun 25, 2013

Silencing Whistleblowers

Our country has a long history of whistleblowers. Frank Serpico of the New York Police Department was one of the first police officers to testify against police corruption. Sherron Watkins shed light on the corporate financial scandal at Enron and was named one of TIME magazine's People of the Year in 2002.

So why with this illustrative history of exposing corruption and malfeasance would legislators around the country even consider a bill that would suppress whistleblowers? Known as "ag-gag" bills, such legislation would seek to criminalize whistle-blowing on factory farms.

Why would the agribusiness industry want to stop the public from discovering what actually goes on in its plants? What does it have to hide?

A great deal, according to The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), which has performed dozens of undercover investigations around the country by individuals who gain employment on factory farms to document inhumane treatment of animals. This is much more than an issue of animal cruelty. It is one of public safety as a contaminated food supply endangers all of us.

Some examples of The HSUS' investigations range from the exposé of calf abuse at a Vermont slaughter plant that led to its closure and a felony criminal conviction as well as of a cow slaughter plant in California, which prompted the largest meat recall in U.S. history. Documentation of rampant animal abuse at Wyoming Premium Farm led to convictions of criminal animal cruelty for five workers.

In 2013, lawmakers in 11 states have introduced anti-whistleblower bills: Arkansas, California, Indiana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Wyoming and Vermont.

On April 17, the author of California's anti-whistleblower bill, Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, pulled the legislation because of pressure from outraged citizens and the media who want to protect food safety, the environment, the First Amendment, and labor unions, all of which would feel the impact of this bill.

Elsewhere, the HSUS has asked Governor Bill Haslam of Tennessee to veto that state's "ag-gag" bill. The bill narrowly passed the Tennessee legislature despite strong opposition. In 2011, an HSUS investigation of Tennessee walking horses revealed shocking cruelty by trainer Jackie McConnell. A whistleblower recorded horses being whipped, kicked, shocked in the face and intentionally burned with caustic chemicals. The investigation resulted in a 52-count criminal indictment against McConnell and two others, including 38 counts of animal cruelty.

We need whistleblowers whether they are operating within our government, in nonprofits or at multinational corporations. Someone needs to stand up for what is right. Often these individuals lose their jobs or are ostracized at their place of employment. It takes a certain kind of courage to be a whistleblower, courage that should be rewarded, not suppressed.

By banning photography or filming of a factory farm without management's permission, and by making it a crime for an investigator to get work at a factory farm, these types of bills effectively ban undercover investigations.

We need more transparency at factory farms. We have a right to know the conditions these animals must endure before they wind up on our dinner table.

This isn't only about animal welfare and public health. It's about our constitutional right of free speech. We need to do everything possible to keep the agricultural industry under surveillance to ensure that our food is safe and that no animal is treated with cruelty and indifference.