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'Ag-gag' laws: What you need to know

A look at bills that could silence whistleblowers, animal rights advocates and reporters trying to expose food safety and animal abuse issues in U.S. agriculture

Some U.S. states are considering legislation to punish whistleblowers for attempting to expose food safety and animal abuse at industrial farms.
Some U.S. states are considering legislation to punish whistleblowers for attempting to expose food safety and animal abuse at industrial farms.

koko-tewan via Shutterstock

What are the ag-gag laws?

In 2011, New York Times writer Mark Bittman coined the term "ag-gag" laws for propositions in several U.S. states that would make it illegal to conduct undercover investigations of agricultural production facilities.

What do they have to do with free expression?

The bills would apply equally to journalists, activists and employees – and are seen to violate the First Amendment, which protects free expression. By prohibiting any type of undercover recording, a facility's own employees would be forbidden from attempting to record food safety and labour violations, animal abuse and other illegal activities.

Have any of these bills been passed?

According to the Centre for Media and Democracy (CMD), since 2011 ag-gag bills have been brought forward in 16 states. While the motions have died or been defeated in a number of instances – including in Wyoming – which included the possibility of six-month prison terms, Iowa, Utah and Missouri all enacted some version of the legislation in 2012. As of March 2013, ag-gag bills were under consideration in Arkansas, California, Indiana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and Tennessee.

In Iowa, reporters or other individuals who become employees of farms to gain internal access can be charged with a serious or aggravated misdemeanour. In Utah, disseminating photographs or videos of a farm is considered a criminal act. In Missouri, according to Index on Censorship, the originally proposed ag-gag bill was tabled, but a subsequently approved omnibus bill demanded that animal abuse footage be turned over to law enforcement agencies within 24 hours of filming. Critics note that many exposés are undertaken when authorities fail to do their jobs and that the narrow time limits may prevent thorough investigations.

What's with the recent wave of ag-gag bills?

Proponents claim the ag-gag laws are necessary to protect agricultural interests, saying undercover videos are often highly edited and can give an image of abuse in animal agriculture that is unfounded. As such, they are seeking to distinguish a dividing line between proper concern for animal well-being, and defamation and harassment of agricultural producers.

But critics point out that adequate protections are already provided by laws that cover trespassing, and defamation or libel if false information is distributed. Rebekah Wilce, lead writer for CMD's Food Rights Network, said the "bills seek to prevent the documentation and exposure of safety violations and atrocities in animal industries by criminalising them and labelling them 'obstruction'. In other words, turn off the tape and bury the evidence rather than reform the system."

Undercover photos and videos have been used extensively to reveal animal abuse at farms and slaughterhouses. In 2008, for example, a video produced by the Humane Society of the United States resulted in the largest meat recall in U.S. history.

I don't live in the U.S. Why should I care?

U.S. agricultural corporations wield considerable power beyond domestic politics – they control 40 per cent of global food trade. The U.S. legislature is currently laying the groundwork for protocols that could be implemented internationally.

Vera Top is a farmer and freelance writer.


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