When animal rights activist Matt Johnson last made national news, he was in disguise. He appeared on Fox Business in December 2020, sporting a buzz cut and button-down (much different to his usual casual attire) and posed as the CEO of Smithfield Foods. The pork giant he claimed to be representing had factory farms that were "petri dishes for new diseases", he told the news anchor. After the segment went viral online, Fox realized their mistake: "It appears we have been punked," host Maria Bartiromo announced, apologizing to Smithfield, which called the interview "a complete hoax".
Johnson's antics, and his seeming lack of fear of the consequences, have made him a formidable opponent of the meat industry. But while the Fox incident offered a moment of levity, today, Johnson makes the news for something far more serious. He has just been let off for criminal charges that could have sent him to prison for up to eight years. After conducting an undercover exposé of conditions at the pork company Iowa Select Farms in May 2020, his actions put him on the line for burglary and planting recording devices. Another charge, for trespassing at a food operation (an offense created by an Iowa ag-gag law), was added in 2021.
While these specific charges against Johnson can't be brought again, they may not be his last. His work as an organizer with the animal rights group Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) involves high-profile, high-risk actions like secretly recording factory farms and rescuing animals. Since farm animals are legally property and have no rights and almost no protection from suffering, removing them is usually treated as burglary, no different from stealing jewelry or someone's wallet. In the last decade, many state "ag-gag" laws have sought to further criminalize such activism.
The conditions that brought Johnson, an Iowa native now based in California, to Iowa Select Farms facilities were particularly cruel, according to DxE - and the outrage that followed his exposé suggests the public were similarly alarmed. As Covid was tearing through US slaughterhouses, Johnson had been tipped off by an Iowa Select truck driver about conditions at the company's facilities.
Across the meat industry, workers were falling ill, meatpacking capacity was significantly reduced, and farms were overloaded with animals and looking for ways to dispose of them. Johnson was made aware of a practice called "ventilation shutdown", being used by Iowa Select to mass exterminate pigs: the animals were packed into sealed barns and essentially cooked to death by heaters and steam generators.
In undercover footage captured by Johnson in May 2020, which was published by The Intercept, the pigs can be heard shrieking in distress. These revelations immediately made headlines and sparked a PR crisis for Iowa Select, which stopped practicing ventilation shutdown after it was brought to light - a rare and solid win for animal rights activists. "Matt's investigation of ventilation shutdown is probably the most important [factory farm] investigation in more than a decade," explains Justin Marceau, an animal law scholar and professor at the University of Denver.
A surprise in the courts
Prosecutions of activists such as Johnson have been on the rise in recent years. Last month, Wayne Hsiung, the DxE co-founder who for years has had criminal charges against him pending across multiple states, was convicted for the first time of two felonies in North Carolina for removing a sick goat from a farm. But on Wednesday, the day before Johnson's trial, all charges against him were dismissed, an outcome that surprised reporters and activists alike. An earlier set of charges pertaining to Johnson's ventilation shutdown investigation in Iowa had already been dismissed in January 2021, a few days before trial, because Iowa Select Farms didn't want to testify. The charges dismissed this week, which included Johnson's rescue of a sick two-week-old piglet whom he named Gilly, was the second case involving his activity at Iowa Select facilities.
The case's prosecutor, Joe Corrow, Wright county assistant attorney, on Tuesday filed to dismiss the charges "in the interest of justice", a vague legal phrase that doesn't provide much insight into his reasoning. "It's basically a catch-all to say 'Yeah, we don't think we should go forward anymore'," said Adam Junaid, one of Johnson's attorneys. The motion to dismiss came 15 minutes before a hearing on news media recording of the trial, which is usually permitted in Iowa, was supposed to begin. Neither Corrow nor Iowa Select Farms responded to multiple requests for comment for this story.
Johnson's was one of the most highly anticipated farm animal rights cases in recent history, and the outcome is undoubtedly a victory for DxE, a group that since 2013 has been taking animals from factory farms and daring law enforcement to come after them - a practice they call "open rescue". That has sparked debate over whether activists have the "right to rescue" animals from suffering.
"We are setting a precedent that rescuing animals from situations where they're in distress is the right thing to do. It's not a crime," said Johnson, speaking after the charges were dismissed. But Johnson had hoped to make it to trial. Some might question the wisdom of inviting criminal convictions, but for DxE, breaking laws in order to change them is part of the point. "I think when people see activist repression, it's actually very positive for movements because you get that sympathy, you get that attention, and people see you as someone who's suffering unjustly," said DxE lead organizer Almira Tanner. "And then of course there's the opportunities for concrete legal victories."
Marceau, the animal law scholar, believes there's value in pushing unjust animal treatment laws to trial. If a jury votes to acquit in such a case, he said, that would be a bad outcome from the state's perspective - making prosecutors reluctant to bring similar cases to trial, and opening up space for activists to do more rescues.
But it's a high-risk strategy. "Prison is terrible," Marceau said. Alongside the personal suffering, he wonders whether the incarceration of prominent activists such as Johnson could damage the morale of the movement.
Even if an activist has a sympathetic case, the jury aren't certain to hear it. At Hsiung's North Carolina trial, for example, the judge blocked most testimony on the health and suffering of the goat he had rescued. In Johnson's case, the state had filed a motion arguing that showing ventilation shutdown would "appeal to the jury's sympathies and arouse their sense of horror, and only serve to confuse the issues".
Johnson did not want his case to be dropped. He had hoped to use the trial to try to convince a jury that he was right to expose Iowa Select's atrocities, create a precedent for the right to rescue suffering animals, and challenge the constitutionality of the ag-gag law he was charged under. Even a guilty verdict, he said, would help the movement. "I'm very at peace with the fact that sacrifice of this sort is going to be necessary," he said before charges were dropped. He'd spent the last few weeks with his family in Iowa, preparing for the possibility of going to prison.
"Not really," Johnson said when asked if he was relieved that he wouldn't be locked up after the prosecutor moved to dismiss the case. His legal team then filed an objection to the dismissal, arguing that Johnson should be able to address the allegations against him and "to have the 'right to rescue' tested in a court of law". At a final hearing Wednesday, the judge seemed confused that Johnson was fighting for the right to risk prison. "The court cannot force the state to go to trial," he concluded, before dismissing the case.