Ag-Gag: Outlawing Voices Who Speak for the Voiceless

Posted by Stephen Wells, ALDF Executive Director on February 2, 2016

Legally Brief

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the federal agency responsible for the enforcement of laws pertaining to farming, agriculture, and food production, estimates that more than 9 billion animals will be slaughtered in the U.S. this year.

Despite increasing worldwide demand for meat and the accelerating pace of American slaughter lines, there are acknowledged staffing shortages among the USDA’s inspector corps that have existed for some time.

More than half a million people work in low-income jobs in American slaughterhouses and related facilities. Many are undocumented, and they labor with little job security in physically demanding and often dangerous conditions.

In October 2014, following years of intense lobbying by the meat industry, and in spite of opposition from citizens groups, the USDA elected to allow some poultry plant employees, rather than USDA inspectors, decide whether their products are safe for consumption. At the same time, the agency reduced the number of trained inspectors in plants nationwide.

Meanwhile numerous investigations within the animal agriculture industry have exposed a pattern and practice of animal cruelty and workplace violations. In response, and at the behest of the industry, eight states have passed laws that essentially criminalize whistleblowing and undercover activism, making it illegal to record and disseminate photographs or footage taken in agricultural operations. These are the “Ag-Gag” laws.

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Agribusiness leaders want to hide the suffering of the animals they kill and of the workers who kill and butcher them. They want to hide the frantic pace of production that churns fecal matter into ground meat. They want to hide lagoons of hog offal that pollute groundwater with the insecticides, antibiotics, and vaccines used to fatten hogs, herds, and profit margins.

But ALDF is challenging the industry’s efforts to cover up its illegal activities in court, with cooperation from allied organizations in consumer rights, food safety, civil liberties, and whistleblower-protection agencies.

In 2013, ALDF led a coalition in filing the nation’s first challenge to an Ag-Gag law, representing activist Amy Meyer in a case against the state of Utah, charging that the law infringes on free-speech rights by criminalizing undercover investigations. Meyer, who had videotaped the operations at Dale Smith Meatpacking Company from the roadside, was the first person in the nation to be prosecuted under an Ag-Gag law, although the charges were dropped after a public outcry. In August 2014, despite a motion from the state to dismiss the case, the court allowed the lawsuit to move forward.

Last August, in another lawsuit brought by ALDF and a coalition of public interest organizations, including PETA, the Center for Food Safety, and the ACLU, a federal district court in Idaho struck down the state’s Ag-Gag law as unconstitutional under the First Amendment. Drafted by the Idaho Dairymen’s Association, the law made it a criminal offense to document animal welfare, worker safety, and food safety violations at any “agricultural production facility,” thus “gagging” speech that is critical of industrial agriculture. The statute defines “agricultural production facility” so broadly that it applies not only to factory farms and slaughterhouses, but also to public parks, restaurants, nursing homes, grocery stores, pet stores, and virtually every public accommodation and private residence.

In Wyoming, ALDF represented environmentalists in challenging two state laws criminalizing any individual who enters private or public open land without permission to collect what the state defines as resource data—including pictures of noxious weeds, samples of polluted water, videos of injured animals, or notes on the landscape—and then communicates that data to a federal or state agency.

Most recently, ALDF and a coalition of allied organizations filed a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a new North Carolina law that allows for civil suits against whistleblowers who seek to reveal wrongdoing at any workplace. That law, effective January 1, prohibits investigations not only in agricultural settings, but also in any private business, including hospitals, elder care facilities, veteran care facilities, and schools. The New York Times endorsed the lawsuit, writing that “[t]he secrecy promoted by ag-gag laws should have no place in American society.”

Nonetheless, big agribusiness knows that interest continues to grow among the American public in where its food comes from, who’s producing it, and how it’s being produced. In North Carolina, a state with an economy heavily dependent on hog production, 74 percent of voters “support undercover investigations by animal welfare groups on farms,” according to a May 2015 poll. In Idaho, an October 2015 poll found 53 percent of respondents agreed with the federal judge’s overturning of that state’s Ag-Gag law, while less than a third opposed his ruling.

Though not to be taken lightly, we see such laws as examples of the desperation increasingly felt by industries that rely on cruelty and neglect to thrive. With so much to hide, corporate meat producers feel forced to firewall their practices from government inspectors, from their own customers, and from the American public. No Ag-Gag law is immune from challenge.


8 thoughts on “Ag-Gag: Outlawing Voices Who Speak for the Voiceless

  1. Magda Zakrzewski says:

    THE MURDERS OF MILLIONS OF INNOCENT ANIMALS
    LIKE THE MURDERS OF JEWS BY THE NAZIS GO ON EVERY DAY. MILLIONS OF BEASTS ARE SLAUGHTERED BY SAD KILLERS. WE ARE INFLICTING TERRIBLE PAIN AND CRUELTY ON BEASTS AND PEOPLE. WE DONT NEED TO EAT ANIMAL PROTEIN.STOP THE SLAUGHTER. STOP THE SLAUGHTER.

  2. Renate says:

    The public should and have the saying in this matter and we must fight for our rights and the animals.

  3. Pamela morris says:

    Disgusting

  4. lina nicolia says:

    We have to get complete transparency on the handling of farm animals. They are sentient beings who should be protected, just the same as our pets. They deserve our respect and should not be subjected to mishandling and torture. Their death should not be a horror but a gift people are grateful for. We will NOT let them die in the hands of psychopaths ! Bad enough, we are killing them, but it should never be a subject hidden from our awareness. Slaughterhouses need glass walls !!!!!!

  5. margaret hui says:

    YES, THE SENSELESS SLAUGHTER OF BILLIONS OF ANIMALS MUST STOP! THE SOONER IT STOPS, THE SOONER OUR PLANET WILL START TO HEAL ITSELF. WE MUST FIGHT TO STOP THIS HORRIBLE PRACTICE, OR IT WILL HAUNT US AND OUR GENERATIONS TO COME. WE MUST PUT EVERY OUNCE OF ENERGY TO ACHIEVE THAT EVERY DAY. IT WILL NOT BE EASY, BUT IT WILL BE WORTH IT. ONE OF THE WAYS TO ACHIEVE THAT IS TO EDUCATE THE YOUNG GENERATION ABOUT VEGAN LIFE STYLE AND ABOUT ITS BENEFITS. THE SCHOOLS ARE THE PLACES TO START. PLEASE, NEVER, NEVER GIVE UP TO BE A VOICE FOR THE VOICELESS.

  6. Bradley says:

    The response should not be to limit cameras but rather to increase them. I support installing cameras that run 24/7.

  7. Marie says:

    How can humans ever expect peace and spiritual advancement while they are the living tombs of murdered animals?
    STOP murdering and mistreating innocent animals,show respect for ALL life, and EAT VEGAN!!!

  8. if your anything of a Christian and read the bible you would see what was Created for man,but all things were touched by man that means the bible and Creator our God says we are to watch and therefor eat and pray over all things ,and that Christ Jesus came that all things even the hoof animal be made clean and therefore I eat (meat Protein) needed for my life, I understand how some may fill,there is no cruel in butchering a animal for food if it is done in a humane manner that is why I still want a ranch/farm I will pray for you all Amen

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