Ag-Gag Laws Help Hide Animal Abuse on Factory Farms

by Maggie Tauranac


In March, Iowa lawmakers once again introduced legislation that made it a criminal act to whistleblow on factory farms by recording, possessing or distributing photos, video and/or audio of farm activities.

In 1904, journalist Upton Sinclair went undercover to research his novel that described the grotesque conditions for both workers and animals in the meatpacking industry. “The Jungle” created public outrage, and ultimately led to the authorization of the Meat Inspection Act, legislation which regulates sanitary conditions for slaughter.

Today, in response to journalists and activists harnessing Sinclair’s muckraker energy and going undercover in agricultural facilities, powerful corporations have influenced state laws to prevent this kind of whistleblowing. These laws are referred to as “Ag-Gag” laws. Ag-Gag laws have been growing in popularity since around 2011, but efforts to challenge them are gaining ground.

What Are Ag-Gag Laws?

You might have, at some point, seen a grainy video of animals being grossly mistreated on a factory farm (or CAFO — concentrated animal feeding operation). Videos like these are usually taken — and then distributed publicly — by undercover journalists and animal welfare activists who seek to pull back the curtain on animal welfare issues at these large scale facilities.

Ag-Gag laws are laws put in place under the guise of protecting farmers from those acting under false pretenses since these whistleblowers often use fake identities. But their true purpose is to keep the public from knowing the details of how the literal and metaphorical sausage gets made. Ag-Gag laws began popping up in the ‘90s in states with large and powerful livestock industries, such as Idaho, Utah and North Carolina.

Free Speech Issues with Ag-Gag Laws

Critics of Ag-Gag laws argue that laws put in place to criminalize free speech violate the Constitution. They argue that whistleblowers and journalists working to inform the public about inhumane practices in industrial agriculture are protected under the First Amendment. As a result, Ag-Gag legislation is being challenged by lawsuits across the country for being unconstitutional.

Successful Challenges to Ag-Gag Laws

Earlier this month a coalition of public interest groups — consisting of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, PETA, the Center for Food Safety and more — filed a lawsuit against the US District Court for the Southern District of Iowa to strike down Iowa’s most recent Ag-Gag law. This law is actually a mere repackaging of a previously struck down law, in January of last year, which was ruled a violation of the first amendment.

Iowa lawmakers responded by sidestepping the ruling with the invention of a new crime: the “agricultural production facility trespass,” a slightly different framing that focuses on intent to deceive or economically harm (as in, consumers will stop buying from them if they know what’s going on behind closed doors). The coalition has dubbed this rebrand Ag-Gag 2.0, and describes the law as “a blatant attempt to circumvent the federal court’s ruling and stifle free speech about the appalling conditions that animals endure in industrial animal agriculture.” A precedent for overturning Ag-Gag laws has been set in Idaho and Utah, and there is current litigation in process in North Carolina in Kansas, so the coalition is in good company.

Protecting Whistleblowers

Whistleblowing, reporting and gathering evidence against a corrupt system are protected rights of citizens. Undercover journalists are preserving a consumer’s right to know what occurs in industrialized meat production. In this way, animal welfare advocates are protecting better meat production, but also small-scale livestock farmers, safe working conditions, food safety and general transparency within our food system.

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