"Ag-Gag" Laws: Proposed Legislation Would Make Videotaping Animal Cruelty Terrorism

Industrialized animal agriculture is grasping at increasingly desperate measures to keep animal cruelty and other unsavory practices on factory farms hidden from public view in the form of so-called "Ag-Gag" legislation. These bill make simply videotaping illegal. The business advocacy group American Legislative Exchange Council is responsible for modeling much of this legislation.

Yet the far-reaching and silencing impact of these "Ag-Gag" laws reaches far beyond the chickens or pigs on film and directly into our First Amendment rights.  

An overview of these bills reveals that:

"Ag-Gag bills also keep employees and others from blowing the whistle on environmental violations. Huge amounts of waste are generated by the billions of cows, pigs and chickens on factory farms. Much of that waste, full of antibiotics, growth promoters and synthetic hormones, finds its way into our waterways and municipal water supplies. State and federal laws require CAFOs [Confined Animal Feeding Operations] to minimize their environmental damage, but the laws are often not enforced. One of the ways to expose violations is through undercover investigations."

Without the ability to hold large industries accountable for what goes on behind closed doors, food safety and environmental protection concerns arise.

Undercover footage from a Mercy for Animals investigation of Willet Dairy revealed calves having their horns burned off without painkillers in addition to the use of a controversial bovine growth hormone in cows. Footage from the Humane Society shows workers kicking living piglets like soccer balls, swinging sick piglets in circles by their hind legs, and striking mother pigs with their fists at a Tyson pork supplier breeding facility. 

One undercover investigator, Cody Carlson, wrote about his experience working for the Humane Society in Iowa. He explains that "If the ag-gag law had been in effect then, I might be writing this article from a cell."

In response, the American Farm Bureau Federation's director of Congressional relations, Kelli Ludlum, explains seeing slaughterhouse footage can be like seeing open-heart surgery for the first time. She argues, "The videos may seem troubling to someone unfamiliar with farming. They could be performing a perfect procedure, but you would consider it abhorrent that they were cutting a person open."

Putting the absurdity of comparing open-heart surgery to the abuse revealed through the videotaped footage in the form of kicking, beating, and abusing animals aside, if this is so, why not let us see the videotapes?

In his New York Times op-ed titled "Open the Slaughterhouses," Duke law professor Jedediah Purdy writes that "So-called ag-gag laws, proposed or enacted in about a dozen states, make, or would make, criminals of animal-rights activists who take covert pictures and videos of conditions on industrial farms and slaughterhouses. Some would even classify the activists as terrorists."

I’d be troubled if anyone investigating or filming my surgeon's work was considered a terrorist. 

But Ludlum's point also correlates to the "customary" practices argument for many of the cruel practices of the animal farming industry. As the argument goes, practices such as burning off horns without painkillers or cutting off the tails of piglets without any anesthetic are standard practices in the industry, and therefore not cruel. This circular logic can be used to excuse and justify most practices in animal agriculture. 

Animal advocates have learned that when consumers learn about many of these so called "customary" practices, they will work to legislate for change in the form of improved measures for animal welfare. Responding with their own arsenal of legislation, meat and dairy suppliers are hoping to ban consumers from seeing these practices altogether.

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Jamie Hagen

Jamie J. Hagen is a New York City-based writer, researcher and incoming student at the Global Governance and Human Security PhD program at UMass Boston this fall. Jamie has written about feminism, feminist security studies, and LGBTQ politics for publications including Autostraddle, The Dart Society, On The Issues Magazine and One Green Planet. You can find her work at: www.jamiejhagen.com

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