It’s not an uncommon belief amongst industrialized animal farmers: Keep possible animal cruelty and other distasteful business practices out of the public eye. No photos or videos are to be taken without the owner’s discretion.
Three states (Kansas, Montana, and North Dakota) passed laws two decades ago which forbid any images taken at animal facilities. And now, over twenty years and several undercover initiatives later, the agribusiness industry is introducing bills in several other states which would make any public efforts to police these animal farms virtually impossible.
These so-called “Ag gag” laws slightly vary in their particulars across different states. A majority of them aim to prohibit anyone, journalists included, from taking photos or videos at animal farms without permission. Some require that anyone recording images of animal abuse must submit the footage to law enforcement within 48 hours. Others intend to criminalize the whistleblowers who alert authorities or media organizations of suspected abuse or unsanitary exercises.
“The intent of these bills is crystal clear,” said Matt Dominguez of the Farm Animal Protection Campaign at the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) said in a phone interview on Wednesday. “They are meant to keep the American public in the dark about the animal abuse and cruelty going on behind closed doors.”
So far in 2013, 10 states saw Ag gag bills introduced to their respective legislatures, but they have been met with staunch opposition from animal rights activists far and wide. Bob Barker, former host of the game show “The Price is Right”, has been one of many celebrities vocal about the cause.
“Americans today want better treatment of animals killed for food, not for their legislators to hide illegal cruelty on farms behind locked doors” he wrote in letters sent to lawmakers last month. “I hope to hear that you’ll stand up for protecting our right to document and expose cruelty to animals.”
Country singer Carrie Underwood also expressed her displeasure with Tennessee lawmakers last week after they passed an Ag gag bill later in the day.
“Shame on TN lawmakers for passing the Ag gag bill,” Underwood tweeted. “If Gov. Haslam signs this, he needs to expect me at his front door. Who’s with me?”
Several media organizations, including the New York Times, have weighed in on the topic as well.
Dominguez added that he believes these proposed laws are “directly related” to the recent uncover investigations conducted by HSUS and other organizations. In May 2012, HSUS published a video (Warning: graphic) that depicts severe animal cruelty at a pig farm in Wyoming. In December, seven months after the release of the video, nine people were charged with animal abuse crimes. And a month after the charges were filed, an Ag gag bill was introduced to Wyoming legislators.
“It’s no coincidence,” Dominguez said in reference to the timing of the Ag gag bills. “This is a clear pushback to criminalize these investigations.”
The discussion around the proposed Ag gag laws has also resulted in a journalistic dilemma as well. As Kristen Rasmussen wrote last year, at least one of the proposed laws would prohibit a person snapping a photo of livestock in a public place. “For example: a photograph taken from a public road of a farm animal grazing in an open field would expose the journalist to up to a year in prison or a $1,000 fine,” she wrote.
Under many of the bills, both journalists and non-journalists could be criminally charged for any unauthorized documentation of activities at factory farms.
“At the heart of the matter, it’s unconstitutional,” Dominguez said. “It says a lot about an industry that wants to criminalize someone for simply taking a picture of their operation.”