When learning about how animals are treated in the production of meat and animal products, even most meat eaters are horrified. But rather than improving animal welfare in response to public outcry, governments have decided instead to try to prevent public awareness of the issues.
What are ag-gag laws?
Ag-gag laws are state laws that attempt to “gag” would-be whistleblowers and undercover activists on Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), also known as “factory farms.” They do this by criminalizing taking pictures, videos, audio or otherwise documenting slaughterhouses and industrial animal farms. They may also criminalize investigators and activists who apply to the job with the intent of collecting data.
These laws aim to keep the public from finding out about horrendous animal agriculture practices. These shameful practices include abusing animals, exploiting workers and contaminating the air and water of nearby communities with little to no regulations. As a result, employees, reporters, researchers and activists are discouraged from investigating animal exploitation operations. In states where ag-gag laws apply, the corporation is not at fault for exploiting animals, workers and the environment and for lack of food safety requirements. Instead, the messenger is the criminal.
Types of ag-gag laws
“Ag-gag” laws generally target three areas. These include “agricultural interference” laws, which prevent documentation of the facility without the owner’s consent; “agricultural fraud” laws, which prevent applying to a farm job with the intent of documenting it; and “rapid reporting” laws, which requires footage to be turned in within twenty-four hours. These rapid reporting laws prevent activists from proving systematic abuse and allow defendants to insist they were isolated acts.
How many states have ag-gag laws?
From 1991-2021, ten states have passed fourteen ag-gag laws. Currently, some laws remain active in five states, including Alabama, Iowa (a 2020 law), Missouri (3 laws passed in 2012, 2017 and 2021), Montana, and North Dakota. Ag-gag laws are currently being challenged in Arkansas and Iowa (a 2021 law). The laws have been partially struck down in Iowa (a 2012 law) and fully struck down in Idaho, Iowa (a 2019 law), Kansas, North Carolina (a 2015 law), Utah and Wyoming.
In addition to the ag-gag laws that have passed, many other states (Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Vermont, and Wyoming) have attempted to pass them but failed.
Are ag-gag laws constitutional?
Although these laws clearly violate First Amendment rights to free speech and freedom of the press, the financial power, political clout and powerful lobbying of industrial animal agriculture has forced them onto the books in some states. Some ag-gag laws have been so far-reaching that groups dedicated to civil liberties, free press, food safety and worker rights have teamed up with animal activists to successfully fight these laws.
For instance, the 2015 “Property Protection Act” passed in North Carolina (overturned in 2020) penalized employees who documented and shared wrongdoing in a business’ non-public areas. It threatened fines of up to $5000 for each day that someone collected unauthorized data. Although it targeted primarily animal activists, the law was so broad that it could have applied to employees in any industry, such police officers documenting abuse by fellow officers or nursing home workers documenting elder abuse.
Ag-gag laws only deepen public distrust of factory farms
Farmers themselves may be swayed against ag-gag laws given that they only damage their own reputation and bolster support for animal rights’ groups. Studies show that ag-gag laws result in lower trust in farmers, more negative perceptions about farm animal welfare, negative perception of farms’ disregard for environmental impact, and increased support for animal welfare laws.
Farm operations should take note of the results of research studies, which have found that the public considers animal protection groups more credible sources of information than livestock industry groups and views whistleblowers in a positive light.
Factory farms, beware: as public awareness of ag-gag laws grows, these attempts to reduce transparency only further erodes trust. Whenever ag-gag legislation is introduced, although the majority does not become law, the negative spotlight on the industry grows.
Ag-gag laws essentially shoot the messenger. By doing so, they indict themselves. If the animal agriculture industry does not want the public to know what’s going on behind closed doors, well, they clearly have something big to hide.
See also: veggie libel laws