Taking Ag-Gag to Court

Updated on January 26, 2016

What Are “Ag-Gag” Laws?

As the name suggests, “Ag-Gag” laws seek to “gag” would-be whistleblowers and undercover activists by punishing them for recording and disseminating footage of what goes on in animal agriculture. They were originally designed to prevent the public from learning about animal cruelty. More recently, as is the case in North Carolina, states are passing laws which not only criminalize whistleblowing in agricultural facilities but any private business, including hospitals, elder care facilities, veteran care facilities, and schools.

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Why Are Ag-Gag Laws Harmful?

The ability to investigate, document, and publicize corporate agriculture’s abuses is imperative both to the well-being of animals across the nation—and to our own health and safety.

Factory farms want to keep their cruel practices hidden from the public, but the public deserves the truth about the billions of animals suffering on industrial farms and whether laws are being broken, jeopardizing food safety, workers’ rights, and environmental standards.

Undercover investigations have revealed severe animal abuse on factory farms—animals beaten, kicked, maimed, and thrown.

Investigations have also brought to light ammonia and pink slime in hamburgers, antibiotic-resistant “superbugs,” chickens abandoned by the thousands to starve to death, pregnant and nursing pigs held in gestation crates too small for them to stand or turn around, and sick and downed cows dragged on the ground before they become lunchmeat.

  • View our Ag-Gag timeline for an overview of the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s work on this important issue.

History of Ag-Gag Laws

Ag-Gag laws emerged in the early 1990s, with Kansas being the first state to pass legislation that made it illegal for someone to take undercover footage in a private farm with the intent to damage its business. Montana and North Dakota passed similar laws the following year.

As of June 2015, six other states have passed their own versions of Ag-Gag laws, bringing the total number of Ag-Gag states to seven or eight (depending on how you classify them):

  1. Kansas (K. S. A. 47-1825 – 1830)
  2. Montana (MCA 81-30-101 to 81-30-105)
  3. North Dakota (ND ST 12.1-21.1-01 to 05)
  4. Iowa (ND ST 12.1-21.1-01 to 05)
  5. Missouri (V.A.M.S. 578.405 – 578.412)
  6. Utah (U.C.A. 1953 76-6-112)
  7. North Carolina (N.C.G.S.A. 99A-2)
  8. Wyoming (W. S. 1977 6-3-414) does not have an Ag-Gag law per se—it imposes penalties for gathering resource data information—but the practical effect is to criminalize undercover recording operations.

A Win in Idaho: Ag-Gag is Unconstitutional

In August 2015, 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, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho and a large coalition of environmental and civil rights organizations.

The state legislature had enacted the law after an undercover investigation revealed rampant cruelty at an Idaho dairy farm. Drafted by the Idaho Dairyman’s Association, the law essentially criminalized investigative journalism, barring investigators from gaining access to dairy farms. The law also made it a crime for long-time employees to document animal suffering or abuse they observed on the job.

Other Challenges

North Carolina

On January 13, 2016, ALDF 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 (codified at N.C. Gen. Stat. § 99A-2), which went into effect on January 1, 2016. The law provides for a civil cause of action against whistleblowers who seek to inform the public about matters of public concern in their workplace. This law will deter whistleblowers in facilities like nursing homes, hospitals, day cares, schools, and animal agriculture from reporting concerning or illegal conduct. The law was opposed by major national organization such as the AARP and veterans’ groups. Governor Pat McCrory vetoed the bill only to be overridden by the NC legislature.

Utah: The First Legal Challenge

ALDF, along with PETA, filed the nation’s first lawsuit against an Ag-Gag law in 2013, taking Utah to court for infringing on the free speech rights of activists, investigators, and journalists by criminalizing undercover investigations at factory farms. The state’s law prevents animal advocates and law enforcement from collecting evidence of egregious and illegal abuse of animals on factory farms.

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.

In August 2014, the court allowed the lawsuit to move forward, despite a motion from the state to dismiss the case.

Wyoming

Environmentalists, animal advocates, academics, and the press filed a federal lawsuit (PDF) challenging two Wyoming laws which chill free speech and punish people who collect data on open land (codified at Wyoming Statutes § 6-3-414 and § 40-26-101). ALDF represents some of the environmental groups in the litigation because the Wyoming laws prevent private citizens and citizen groups from discovering harmful practices and conditions on federal, state, and private property, and communicating evidence of those practices and conditions to the appropriate federal and state authorities. These laws impose criminal and civil liability on persons who enter open public or private land without specific permission to collect “resource data”-whether it be pictures of noxious weeds, samples of polluted water, videos of injured animals, or even notes on the landscape-and then communicate that data to a federal or state government agency. Although these laws are not Ag-Gag laws in the traditional sense because they target resource data collection, the practical effect of the laws is to also criminalize undercover recording operations. The Wyoming law, like other Ag-Gag laws, has the effect of turning agricultural whistleblowers like undercover investigators or journalists into criminals.

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