Report: USDA inspectors wrote up meat packing owner over pamphlets in breakroom

According to reports last month in the religious press, the owner of a small meat-packing operation in western Michigan left some pamphlets around in the breakroom reflecting his views on same-sex marriage (opposed) and got written up for it by inspectors with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, whose duties, it seems, include spotting and demanding prompt rectification of hostile-environment harassment, in this case consisting of the printed word. [Reformed Free Publishing Association, Gene Veith] And Stephanie Slade of Reason has a big essay on religious liberty, in which I’m quoted, in Jesuit magazine America.


  • This poses a bit of an unusual situation since USDA meat inspectors actually work at the plant. The government is responsible for ensuring that its own employees aren’t subject to harassment at work, even though it doesn’t control the workplace. One can easily imagine more extreme variations of this situation, such as an inspector being subject to large amounts of unwanted racial slurs or sexual banter, where few would disagree there was a hostile environment. The same might apply if the materials in the breakroom were hardcore pornography instead of anti-gay leaflets. If the government didn’t take action to resolve the problem of its employee being harassed, having had it brought to its attention, it would likely be responsible.

    Now, I think there’s a very fair question as to whether these leaflets rise to the level of a hostile work environment or harassment. And there’s a particular problem here where it’s a government meat inspector rather than, say, a copier technician or the water deliverman, since removing him from the facility means shutting down the entire plant. But the general notion that the on-site inspector, who works in the plant daily, should also be protected from a hostile environment is a sound one.

    It also sounds like this happened two years ago.

    • While I understand your reasoning, the problem with it is that under this scheme, the USDA becomes the judge and jury as to what is harassment.

      Certainly there are other legal avenues for the alleged harassed individuals to go down rather than the USDA saying “do this or else we will shut you down.”

      The other issue is that it seems that the USDA is acting as the thought police. The pamphlets were not anti-gay but rather argued that marriage should be between a man and a woman.

      The USDA is tasked to do a job and that job doesn’t include suppressing speech and ideas with which they disagree. It does not include going outside the law to put a company out of business.

    • “Now, I think there’s a very fair question as to whether these leaflets rise to the level of a hostile work environment or harassment.”

      It clearly doesn’t rise to that level. The Supreme Court has said: “The prohibition of harassment… forbids only behavior so objectively offensive as to alter the “conditions” of the victim’s employment. Conduct that is not severe or pervasive enough to create an objectively hostile or abusive work environment-an environment that a reasonable person would find hostile or abusive-is beyond Title VII’s purview.” (Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, Inc., partially quoting previous cases.) This doesn’t come close to meeting that standard. It’s reading material in the break room, among other reading material (some of which were newspapers expressing the opposite view), and nobody has to read any of it if they don’t like it. This is neither severe nor pervasive, and does not change the conditions of the inspector’s employment. This is not a close call.

      Note that the person distributing the material is not the inspector’s employer, or his supervisor, or even his co-worker. If anything, the inspector has the power (as he showed them by threatening to close the plant.) This is also relevant to any harassment claim.

      I would argue that a government agent enforcing the law should have a somewhat thicker skin than the average person. Ironically, since the inspector himself apparently has the power to determine and enforce this on his own (it says he removed the material before talking with his supervisor) and if the USDA has a policy that he should be looking for this sort of thing, then I can further argue that reviewing potentially offensive material is now part of his job description and that makes it very difficult for anything to be so severe that it further changes his work environment. (If they don’t like that, perhaps they should recognize that there’s an inherent conflict of interest when one person can claim to be personally offended, make the determination himself that speech needs to be removed, and enforce that determination by personally removing the speech.)

      “But the general notion that the on-site inspector, who works in the plant daily, should also be protected from a hostile environment is a sound one.”

      I can agree with that general notion – but that’s not what happened here, since the mere presence of a pamphlet in the break room does not generally create a hostile work environment. And even if a pamphlet in the break room somehow DID create a hostile environment for the inspector, that’s still no reason to threaten to shut down the plant. If this inspector is especially impacted (perhaps he’s gay) the USDA could certainly assign someone else to the plant – I’m sure their inspectors aren’t ALL gay. (The old inspector would have been reassigned anyway if this plant was shut down, so that’s not really a reason against a reassignment, and presumably a regular rotation would prevent shenanigans like bribing an inspector, so they should be doing this on a semi-regular basis anyway.)

      Of course, all this assumes that the inspector felt personally harassed. I can’t tell from the articles whether that’s the case, or whether he’s trying to protect other people from possible harassment, or what.

      “It also sounds like this happened two years ago.”

      Yes, and that actually makes it worse – the owner complied with the illegal demand (to avoid being shut down due to lack of inspections) but filed an official complaint with the USDA back in 2015. Aside from the initial response that they received the complaint, he hasn’t heard anything back. In the meantime, his rights are being violated on an ongoing basis. There’s a prior restraint issue, in that the inspectors demanded the material be immediately removed without any judicial determination that this speech was in fact illegal, and that’s only exacerbated by the amount of time involved.