In response to these revelations, agribusiness and corporate, and industry interests have pushed hard for what are known as “Ag-Gag” laws. Such laws “gag” would-be whistleblowers and undercover activists by making it illegal to record and disseminate photographs or footage taken in agricultural operations.
Eight states — Kansas, North Dakota, Montana, Iowa, Utah, Missouri, Idaho, and North Carolina — have passed “Ag-Gag” laws. In addition, Wyoming passed two laws that are not Ag-Gag per se but effectively criminalizes undercover recording operations.
Such laws aim to hide the suffering of billions of animals on industrial farms, but they also allow farms to hide other activities that jeopardize food safety, workers’ rights, and environmental protections.
Farmed Animals are Largely Unprotected
Despite their vast numbers, and the severity of abuse they suffer, the U.S. legal system gives farmed animals only minimal protections:
- There are no federal laws governing the conditions in which farmed animals are raised.
- The majority of farmed animal suffering is exempt from state criminal anti-cruelty laws.
- Many state anti-cruelty laws exempt “standard” or “commonly accepted” agricultural practices as defined by the industry, including crating baby cows, confining hens in battery cages, cutting off the beaks of chicks with a hot knife and no anesthesia, and a host of other inherently cruel, but common, industrial practices.
Fighting Back in Court — and Winning
Animal advocates, led by the Animal Legal Defense Fund and joined by consumer rights, food safety, civil liberties, and whistleblower protection organizations, are successfully challenging Ag-Gag laws in the courts.
Last August, a federal district court in Idaho struck down the state’s Ag-Gag law as unconstitutional under the First Amendment, a significant victory for the plaintiffs, Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho, Center for Food Safety, Idaho Hispanic Caucus Institute for Research and Education (IHCIRE), and a large coalition of environmental and civil rights organizations.
The state legislature enacted the law after an undercover investigation revealed rampant cruelty at an Idaho dairy farm. Drafted by the Idaho Dairymen’s Association, the law essentially criminalized investigative journalism, barring investigators from gaining access to farms. The law also made it a crime for long-time employees to document animal suffering or abuse they observed on the job.
On January 13, 2016, the Animal Legal Defense Fund and a coalition of animal protection, consumer rights, food safety, and whistleblower protection organizations filed a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the North Carolina law, which went into effect.
The law, passed when the state legislature overrode the veto of Governor Pat McCrory, allows for civil suits against whistleblowers who seek to reveal wrongdoing at any workplace. The law, which was opposed by major national organizations such as AARP and veterans’ groups, goes well beyond imposing penalties for whistleblowing in agricultural facilities. It criminalizes investigations in any private business, including hospitals, elder care facilities, veteran care facilities, and schools.
In 2013, ALDF led a coalition of animal protection groups, including PETA, journalism, and environmental groups, in filing the nation’s first challenge to an Ag-Gag law, against the state of Utah.
Amy Meyer, a Utah activist and co-plaintiff in the suit, videotaped the operations at Dale Smith Meatpacking Company in Draper, Utah, from the roadside in February 2013. She became the first person in the nation to be prosecuted under an ag-gag law, although the charges were dropped after a public outcry.
The lawsuit charges that Utah’s law infringes on the free speech rights of activists, investigators, and journalists by criminalizing undercover investigations at factory farms. In August 2014, the court allowed the lawsuit to move forward, despite a motion to dismiss the case.
Environmentalists, some represented by ALDF, animal advocates, academics, and the media filed a federal lawsuit challenging two Wyoming laws that criminalize undercover recording operations.
The laws impose civil and criminal charges on organizations and individuals who enter private or public open land without permission to collect what the state defines as resource data (e.g., pictures of noxious weeds, samples of polluted water, videos of injured animals, or notes on the landscape) and then communicate that data to a federal or state agency.
Ag-Gag’s Days are Numbered
Ag-Gag bills have proven to be massively unpopular with the public; almost 20 state legislatures have defeated Ag-Gag legislation. Even some industry lobbyists have publicly stated that pushing these laws only makes clear that the industry has something to hide.
Diverse coalitions of public interest organizations will continue to challenge states’ unconstitutional attempts to curtail free speech and hide the truth about industrial agriculture. Each court victory only hastens the demise of the Ag-Gag era.
Image source: Jeff Weese/Wikimedia Commons