Ag-Gag Laws: The Less You Know The Better

Dayton MartindaleJune 19, 2015

A pig, wounded and confined, photographed by an undercover investigator at Country View Family Farms in Fannettsburg, Pennsylvania. "Ag-gag" laws in some states are making this sort of investigation illegal.

Since a Repub­li­can major­i­ty was elect­ed to the North Car­oli­na state leg­is­la­ture in 2012, Gov. Pat McCro­ry ® has signed into law bills that cut unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits, restrict vot­ing rights, lim­it health care access and infringe on abor­tion rights. He even repealed the Racial Jus­tice Act, intend­ed to pre­vent dis­crim­i­na­to­ry appli­ca­tion of the death penalty.

But some bills passed by the GOP leg­is­la­ture are so egre­gious that even the con­ser­v­a­tive McCro­ry has felt com­pelled to exer­cise his veto. Take House Bill 405, which McCro­ry vetoed on May 29, the lat­est in a grow­ing num­ber of what are known as ag-gag” laws. The details vary state by state, but the intent remains the same: to crim­i­nal­ize peo­ple who blow the whis­tle on ani­mal abuse, labor vio­la­tions, ground­wa­ter pol­lu­tion and fur­ther mal­prac­tice with­in fac­to­ry farms — and often in oth­er industries.

On June 3, the North Car­oli­na House and Sen­ate over­rode McCrory’s veto and House Bill 405 was passed into law. Effec­tive Jan­u­ary 1, 2016, it will be ille­gal in North Car­oli­na for an employ­ee to record images or sound occur­ring with­in an employer’s premis­es” pro­vid­ed that she entered those premis­es with­out bona fide intent” to car­ry out her employ­ment, and that she uses this record­ing to breach the person’s duty of loy­al­ty to the employ­er.” Unat­tend­ed cam­eras are also barred.

Tar­gets of the bill include ani­mal rights groups like the Mer­cy For Ani­mals, PETA, the Humane Soci­ety, and Com­pas­sion Over Killing, all of which hire under­cov­er inves­ti­ga­tors to find tem­po­rary employ­ment with­in the meat indus­try, research labs, pup­py mills, zoos and cir­cus­es to expose abus­es. These groups’ exposés have made nation­al news on mul­ti­ple occa­sions, spurring change in the indus­try and gen­er­at­ing pop­u­lar sup­port for ani­mal welfare.

Vand­hana Bala, Gen­er­al Coun­sel for Mer­cy For Ani­mals, calls under­cov­er inves­ti­ga­tions the only mean­ing­ful and effec­tive watch­dogs” for the ani­mal agri­cul­ture indus­try, giv­en the dearth of laws reg­u­lat­ing farmed ani­mal wel­fare. Such inves­ti­ga­tions serve an absolute­ly cru­cial role” in pro­tect­ing these ani­mals, she says.

McCro­ry is no fan of under­cov­er inves­ti­ga­tors. I sup­port the pur­pose of this bill,” he wrote on his offi­cial web­site. He explained, how­ev­er, that he vetoed House Bill 405 because it does not ade­quate­ly pro­tect or give clear guid­ance to hon­est employ­ees who uncov­er crim­i­nal activ­i­ty. I am con­cerned that sub­ject­ing these employ­ees to poten­tial civ­il penal­ties will cre­ate an envi­ron­ment that dis­cour­ages them from report­ing ille­gal activities.”

It is also now ille­gal to even assist” such a vio­la­tion, which would not only pun­ish the ani­mal rights groups who hired the inves­ti­ga­tors but poten­tial­ly even jour­nal­ists who pub­li­cize ille­gal­ly obtained record­ings. And while the pub­lic debate has large­ly revolved around ani­mal agri­cul­ture — North Car­oli­na is home to near­ly 10 mil­lion hogs — the same penal­ties would apply to whistle­blow­ing employ­ees in all indus­tries, from day­care cen­ters to nurs­ing homes.

Move­ment Under Siege’

The crack­down against ani­mal rights activists began in the ear­ly 1990s, and received a boost in the wake of 911, as sur­veil­lance and counter-ter­ror­ism mea­sures surged. The excuse for the crack­down was the Ani­mal Lib­er­a­tion Front (ALF), an asso­ci­a­tion of decen­tral­ized ani­mal rights cells that raids ani­mal labs, releas­es mink from fur farms and oth­er­wise threat­ens the prof­its of indus­tries that exploit ani­mals. While ALF has claimed respon­si­bil­i­ty for mil­lions of dol­lars in prop­er­ty dam­age, one of its few require­ments for any activist adopt­ing the ALF man­tle is to avoid harm to human and non­hu­man animals.

Despite this com­mit­ment to eco­nom­ic, not phys­i­cal, harm, ALF’s fre­quent arson and oth­er ille­gal activ­i­ty has earned the group (and its envi­ron­men­tal­ist ana­logue, the Earth Lib­er­a­tion Front) the label of ter­ror­ist.” Accord­ing to the FBI, eco-ter­ror­ists” are the num­ber one domes­tic ter­ror­ist threat.

Ter­ror­ists or not, ALF’s activ­i­ties do not appear to be deterred by FBI atten­tion. The real dam­age, as jour­nal­ist Will Pot­ter writes in his 2011 book, Green is the New Red: An Insider’s Account of a Social Move­ment Under Siege, is when mea­sures designed to counter the ALF are used to harass and even imprison activists oper­at­ing above­ground, with­in legal confines.

Pot­ter explains that agribusi­ness and phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal cor­po­ra­tions used the influ­en­tial con­ser­v­a­tive lob­by­ing group Amer­i­can Leg­isla­tive Exchange Coun­cil (ALEC) to push leg­is­la­tion label­ing activists as ter­ror­ists.” It can be dif­fi­cult to see ALEC’s fin­ger­prints on some of these bills,” Pot­ter says, because of the secre­tive” nature of the organization.

Still, ag-gag laws are clear­ly heav­i­ly influ­enced by ALEC’s leg­is­la­tion.” A 2004 mod­el bill craft­ed by ALEC called the Ani­mal and Eco­log­i­cal Ter­ror­ism Act” would pro­hib­it indi­vid­u­als from, among oth­er things, tak­ing pho­tog­ra­phy or video with the intent to defame” an ani­mal facil­i­ty. Vio­la­tors would be placed on a ter­ror­ist registry.

In 2011, Iowa became the first state to craft an ag-gag bill based on the 2004 mod­el (with­out the ter­ror­ist” lan­guage), although some states had passed relat­ed leg­is­la­tion in the ear­ly 1990s. The bill became law in 2012, ush­er­ing in a renewed era of anti-whistle­blow­er leg­is­la­tion. These laws were unapolo­getic in pre­vent­ing unau­tho­rized record­ings of ani­mal agri­cul­ture, and as Pot­ter relates, The press ham­mered them.”

More recent ag-gag leg­is­la­tion includes vari­a­tions to appear more palat­able, Pot­ter explains, such as forc­ing peo­ple to dis­close con­nec­tions with ani­mal pro­tec­tion groups on job appli­ca­tions” and forc­ing employ­ees and whistle­blow­ers to turn over infor­ma­tion to the police, rather than the media.” North Car­oli­na removed all ref­er­ences to agri­cul­ture to por­tray the law as being about intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty and finan­cial secrets,” which in real­i­ty just makes the law more expansive.

Not Just For Hogs

What’s bad for non­hu­man ani­mals is often bad for humans, too. Fac­to­ry farms have led to envi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion, pub­lic health con­cerns and labor abus­es just as sure­ly as they have nor­mal­ized the suf­fer­ing of pigs, cows, and chick­ens. In North Car­oli­na, for exam­ple, the mas­sive pools of hog waste poi­son the air and water of local com­mu­ni­ties. As Lau­ra Orlan­do writes in The Lega­cy of Slav­ery: What Inequal­i­ty and Indus­tri­al Hog Oper­a­tions Have in Com­mon,” in North Car­oli­na this pol­lu­tion dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly impacts poor peo­ple of col­or, often con­cen­trat­ed in regions of the state pre­vi­ous­ly home to large slave populations.

This March, Wyoming passed a new breed of ag-gag law. While the leg­is­la­tion was pushed by cat­tle ranch­ers, the ene­my this time is not snoop­ing veg­ans, but rather clean-water advo­cates. A small envi­ron­men­tal group called the West­ern Water­sheds Project has unearthed trou­bling evi­dence of E. coli in Wyoming’s rivers. The like­ly cul­prit? Cow manure.

In response, Wyoming ranch­ers launched a law­suit against the West­ern Water­sheds Project last August, and lob­bied through a new law crim­i­nal­iz­ing the col­lec­tion of resource data.” The leg­is­la­tion defines col­lec­tion broad­ly: to take a sam­ple of mate­r­i­al, acquire, gath­er, pho­to­graph or oth­er­wise pre­serve infor­ma­tion in any form from open land which is sub­mit­ted or intend­ed to be sub­mit­ted to any agency of the state or fed­er­al gov­ern­ment.” So, if some­one in Wyoming stum­bles across an envi­ron­men­tal prob­lem on open land — that is, land not incor­po­rat­ed into a city or town — they can be pros­e­cut­ed if they bring evi­dence of pub­lic health threat to a gov­ern­ment agency.

On the sur­face, farm labor may appear to have a mixed rela­tion­ship with ag-gag laws. After all, many of these under­cov­er inves­ti­ga­tions get work­ers fired, and some have led to pros­e­cu­tions. On June 11, Mer­cy For Ani­mals released doc­u­men­ta­tion of ani­mal abuse on a Col­orado dairy farm, in which infect­ed wounds were left untreat­ed and cows were kicked, punched, and stabbed with screw­drivers. Mer­cy For Ani­mals called on the Mor­gan Coun­ty Sheriff’s Depart­ment and Dis­trict Attorney’s Office to take swift and deci­sive action” — action that could have severe con­se­quences for the often under­paid, some­times undoc­u­ment­ed workers.

As detailed in a 2014In These Timesinves­tiga­tive report by Joseph Sor­renti­no, dairy work­ers are hor­rif­i­cal­ly exploit­ed — poor­ly trained (if at all), sub­ject­ed to dirty and dan­ger­ous con­di­tions and forced to work long hours. Mer­cy For Ani­mals rec­og­nizes that these work­ers are not the real cul­prits: The organization’s main goal is for the dairy indus­try to imple­ment stronger ani­mal wel­fare stan­dards and for peo­ple to adopt a veg­an diet. Bala rec­og­nizes that the cul­ture of cru­el­ty starts at the top.” But she and her orga­ni­za­tion believe the pun­ish­ment of work­ers due to these inves­ti­ga­tions can send a strong mes­sage” to the indus­try, and that hold­ing the direct per­pe­tra­tors of vio­lence account­able is worth the human cost.

In a 2012inter­view with Pot­ter, an unnamed under­cov­er activist reflect­ed on this ten­sion in her work: The over­whelm­ing major­i­ty of peo­ple work­ing inside these facil­i­ties are peo­ple of col­or and migrant work­ers who have been told, much like the migrant work­ers of the ear­ly 20th Cen­tu­ry, that the only path­way to cit­i­zen­ship or liveli­hood is from the bot­tom up, and fac­to­ry farms are the very bot­tom of America’s employ­ment sec­tor. … As activists, I believe we can be doing more to reach out to the peo­ple who are strug­gling for their own rights with­in these pow­er structures.”

This activist clar­i­fied that she did not mean to excuse these work­ers of respon­si­bil­i­ty for their actions, but felt the largest por­tion of the blame lies on the shoul­ders of CEOs and indus­try lead­ers who are the ones requir­ing that the lines move faster, that more eggs are hatched, more milk pumped and more weight gained as quick­ly as pos­si­ble, no mat­ter the con­se­quences. These are the peo­ple who are requir­ing their work­ers to toil away in filthy, unsafe envi­ron­ments for 10, 12, 15 hours a day with no overtime.”

Prof­it-dri­ven cor­po­ra­tions that treat non­hu­mans like dis­pos­able objects often do the same to their human employ­ees. Under­stand­ing this, the AFL-CIO oppos­es ag-gag bills across the coun­try, real­iz­ing that under­cov­er inves­ti­ga­tions are some­times need­ed to doc­u­ment vio­la­tions of worker’s rights.

In Sorrentino’s report, out of over 10 labor­ers inter­viewed, only two chose to use their real name. Even with­out an ag-gag bill in New Mex­i­co, where the sto­ry was based, they feared reper­cus­sion for even talk­ing about their work­ing conditions.

On May 17 on Last Week Tonight, John Oliv­er report­ed on the exploita­tion of chick­en farm­ers. Cor­po­ra­tions such as Tyson and Per­due con­tract out their chick­ens to grow­ers, who must then sup­ply the barns and oth­er mate­ri­als at their own expense, rais­ing the chick­ens accord­ing to exact­ing and often inhu­mane spec­i­fi­ca­tions. Many farm­ers spoke of indus­try retal­i­a­tion against grow­ers who speak out, through docks in pay or being giv­en infe­ri­or — that is, less prof­itable — chicks. Only two grow­ers attend­ed a town hall on the sub­ject in Alaba­ma, claim­ing that most stayed away for fear of repercussions.

Life Under Ag-Gag

The first ag-gag laws date to the ear­ly 1990s, and they have now spread to nine states (10 if you count Wyoming’s anti-envi­ron­men­tal­ist law). So far there have been only two attempt­ed pros­e­cu­tions using this leg­is­la­tion. Both cas­es were in Utah, nei­ther involved the under­cov­er inves­ti­ga­tors the laws sup­pos­ed­ly tar­get, and nei­ther attempt was successful.

The first charge was against ani­mal rights advo­cate Amy Mey­er in Feb­ru­ary 2013, who took a video at a slaugh­ter­house site when she saw a down­er cow (a sick ani­mal unable to stand up) being shoved out of the way by a bull­doz­er. She had not set foot on the slaugh­ter­house grounds, and the charges were dropped.

The sec­ond charge was against four Cal­i­for­nia veg­ans who drove to a hog farm and took pho­tographs last Sep­tem­ber. Their attor­neys say that, like Mey­er, they remained on pub­lic prop­er­ty. Pros­e­cu­tors even­tu­al­ly dropped the agri­cul­tur­al oper­a­tion inter­fer­ence” charges, but kept the less seri­ous tres­pass charge. The defen­dants plead­ed not guilty.

The true cost of ag-gag laws is per­haps mea­sured not in how often they are applied but in their chill­ing effect. Ani­mal rights groups say they no longer send inves­ti­ga­tors to ag-gag states. Work­ers, already afraid of speak­ing out, are now less like­ly to do so, about both non­hu­man ani­mal abuse and their own exploitation.

More ag-gag bills have failed than have passed, and legal chal­lenges have been mount­ed in Ida­ho and Utah. When North Car­oli­na and oth­er states suc­cumb to ALEC and the finan­cial mus­cle of Big Ag, they fly in the face of pub­lic opin­ion. A May 2015 poll by the Amer­i­can Soci­ety for the Pro­tec­tion of Ani­mals found that North Car­oli­na res­i­dents sup­port under­cov­er inves­ti­ga­tions and oppose ag-gag laws by mar­gins of near­ly three to one. Both Bala and Pot­ter think that the indus­try strat­e­gy to silence whistle­blow­ers has back­fired: These laws have sug­gest­ed to the pub­lic that these agri­cul­ture indus­tries have a lot to hide,” Bala says.

The strug­gle over ag-gag car­ries inter­na­tion­al ram­i­fi­ca­tions as well: Sim­i­lar leg­is­la­tion has been intro­duced this year in Aus­tralia. Accord­ing to Pot­ter, Peo­ple around the world are look­ing to Amer­i­cans to see how we respond” to these laws. For all its faults, the demo­c­ra­t­ic sys­tem in Amer­i­ca is seen through­out the world as hav­ing strict pro­tec­tions on free­dom of speech.”

Work­ers and the pub­lic do not all share the ethics of the ani­mal lib­er­a­tion move­ment. But most of us are con­cerned about the work­ing con­di­tions of the labor­ers who pro­duce our food, the treat­ment of the ani­mals we eat and the integri­ty of the envi­ron­ment that sus­tains us all.

Day­ton Mar­tin­dale is an asso­ciate edi­tor at In These Times, and a found­ing mem­ber of Sym­bio­sis. His writ­ing has appeared in In These Times, Earth Island Jour­nal and The Next Sys­tem Project. He tweets at @DaytonRMartind.
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