Ag-Gag Laws: The Less You Know The Better

Dayton Martindale

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 He even repealed the Racial Justice Act, intended to prevent discriminatory application of the death penalty.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 9/11, 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 2014 In These Times investigative 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 2012 interview 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 a freelance writer and former associate editor at In These Times. His work has also appeared in Boston Review, Earth Island Journal, Harbinger and The Next System Project. Follow him on Twitter: @DaytonRMartind.

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