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Ag-Gag

A rash of new legislation has been introduced—and some bills already passed—in states across the country to prevent activists and whistleblowers from exposing the abuse of animals in “agriculture facilities.” These bills would make it unlawful to record sounds or images in places where animals are raised or kept for food production, as well as in some laboratories. Some bills also make it unlawful to take a job at a facility with the intent to document abuse. A more recent strategy is to require undercover investigators to submit their proof of animal abuse to law enforcement authorities within 24 to 48 hours, which would make it difficult to document systemic abuse instead of just individual acts of cruelty.

These bills are dubbed “ag-gag” bills because they seek to silence efforts to expose animal abuse at agricultural facilities. The large number of new bills on this issue is in response to investigations conducted by groups dedicated to showing the abuse of animals raised and killed for food. Organizations such as Compassion over Killing and Mercy for Animals have placed undercover investigators in meat slaughterhouses, dairy farms and poultry producing facilities around the country to document abuse. Many of the states where these facilities are located have subsequently introduced ag-gag bills to protect their businesses – and their profits.

The reason that the industry is supporting the passage of ag-gag laws is because these undercover investigations actually work. During the past few years, criminal charges were brought against numerous factory farming operations. Charges were brought against the North Carolina Butterball facility after a recording showed turkeys being violently kicked and thrown and having their wings pulled by employees. An undercover investigator documented workers beating and whipping cows at Winchester Dairy in New Mexico, which supplies milk for Leprino cheese (a supplier for Pizza Hut®, Domino’s® and Papa John’s®). Hidden cameras revealed abuses towards laying hens at Sparboe Farms in Iowa, Minnesota, and Colorado, including workers maliciously torturing animals, dead birds in cages along with live laying hens, and employees throwing live birds into plastic bags to suffocate. A hidden video camera at Central Valley Meat Co., a slaughterhouse in Hanford, California, that supplies meat for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National School Lunch Program and other federal food initiatives, documented egregious inhumane treatment, improper slaughter methods and intentional cruelty to sick and injured cows. The violations at this facility were so egregious that it was temporarily shut down by the USDA.

While the agricultural industry has long received protection from prosecution for acts of cruelty to animals on the grounds that the alleged abuse is actually “standard agricultural practices,” these videotapes show that the level of cruel and abusive behavior being exposed is anything but “standard.” Nevertheless the legislative response to these exposés is simple: punish the people documenting the abuse instead of the people perpetrating the actual abuse.

In February 2013, Amy Meyer became the first person in the country prosecuted under a state ag-gag law, a newly-adopted law in Utah. Meyer was charged after she was observed videotaping operations at the Dale Smith Meatpacking Company from a road outside the facility. Charges were later dropped because of public outrage. Charges filed against four individuals in 2014 under the Utah law were also dropped when it became clear that no trespass occurred.

On August 3, 2015, District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill struck down Idaho’s ag-gag law. The law was enacted in 2014 in response to dairy farmers’ outcry that animal welfare groups were affecting their $2.5 billion industry. This was after an investigation revealed extreme abuses at Bettencourt Dairies, a Burger King®  supplier. In the landmark decision, Judge Winmill held that Idaho’s ag-gag law violates the First Amendment because it punishes individuals who speak on topics that are of great concern to our society. He also found that the law violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which protects certain groups of citizens from being singled out under the law. He noted that the legislative history of the law revealed that some supporters of the bill compared animal rights advocates to terrorists, persecutors and vigilantes, while others accused animal rights groups of fabricating issues by attacking agricultural facilities in order to generate donations. The purpose for adopting this legislation was primarily in order to stifle animal welfare initiatives, which was a prohibited purpose. While the state argued that the ag-gag law was enacted to protect the privacy of agricultural facility owners rather than to suppress free speech, Judge Winmill determined that agricultural operations are far from a private matter, as food quality and worker safety are of public concern, especially since this law criminalized journalists and longtime employees who document food and environmental safety concerns, workers’ rights violations and employee abuse if they were documented without the consent of the facilities’ owners.

This decision, which is likely to be appealed, will likely have an impact on all state ag-gag laws. Another landmark decision occurred on July 7, 2017, when District Court Judge Robert J. Shelby struck down Utah’s ag-gag law. Judge Shelby held that Utah’s ban on secretly filming farm and slaughterhouse operations is unconstitutional as it violates the First Amendment’s free-speech protections. However, until all ag-gag laws are struck down, animal advocates must be diligent in ensuring that no more states try to protect the economic interests of animal enterprises at the expense of free speech and the welfare of animals.