In 2002, Alabama passed the Farm Animal, Crop, and Research Facilities Protection Act, which criminalized the release of any unauthorized material obtained from farms in the state. A parade of more comprehensive and draconian laws followed years later. In 2011, Florida introduced SB. 1246, a law that criminalized all unauthorized photography, audio or video recording of farms. In the six years since, 16 more bills just like SB. 1246 (known as ag-gags) were introduced throughout the country. Of the 17 states that attempted to pass ag-gags, ten were voted down, abandoned, or eventually ruled unconstitutional (Utah and Idaho). Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, North Carolina, North Dakota and Wyoming have ag-gag laws currently on the books.
As the Center for Constitutional Rights noted in a comprehensive report on ag-gag laws, legal challenges are still ongoing in North Carolina and Wyoming, so there’s a chance those could be ruled unconstitutional as well. The reality is, these laws are unconstitutional, but more egregiously, they authorize animal abuse by removing the threat of exposure while simultaneously opening the door for food safety and environmental violations.
If factory farms were treating animals humanely, like nearly all purport to be, there would be no fear of whistleblowing; there would be nothing to blow the whistle about. There’s only one reason for destroying transparency: to hide something. As animal advocacy groups like Mercy For Animals have reported, most farms greatly exaggerate or flat-out lie when it comes to how well their animals are treated. This is why the agricultural industry has lobbied so heavily for ag-gag laws; they want to make it illegal for the public to see what they’re doing.
Watch a few videos over at Mercy For Animals, or read this stellar investigative report by Rolling Stone. The conditions in many of these farms are beyond hellish: torture, abuse, and mutilation are common practice. What these animals have to endure is entirely heart-shattering, and the public deserves to see it. Moreover, the lengths to which the federal government will go to ensure these laws are upheld is absolutely ridiculous. As Glenn Greenwald reported in the Intercept, there has been an FBI pig-hunt underway in Utah for some time now. Two piglets were removed from a Smithfield farm by activists who said the animals were close to death, and the FBI has been raiding animal sanctuaries in order to find the pigs and prosecute the activists.
These ag-gag laws are introduced and occasionally passed under the masquerade of property protection against so-called eco-terrorism. But the only thing they actually protect is the right to keep animal abuse away from public vision. When unauthorized video footage and photographs from inside these farms hit the mainstream, it’s a public relations disaster for agricultural corporations ― their quotidian savagery is exposed. Thus, they do everything in their power to ensure the veil is not lifted. Since 2011, according to data collected by Open Secrets, the Agribusiness has spent an average of $136 million a year on lobbying.
Ag-gag laws are also indicative of a time-tested practice of vilifying whistleblowers in the U.S. In many industries, from the Catholic church to the military, the act of whistleblowing is seen as a deed worthy of vilification. The act that is exposed by the whistleblower, regardless of how vile it may be, is often viewed are secondary to the act of dissent itself.
From Daniel Ellsberg on through Snowden and Manning, the immediate reaction of the public is often one of scorn. The substance and the ramifications of the information leaked are often not appreciated for some time following the leak itself. This is not the way it should go. Most leakers act out of a sense of duty to the public. Thus, the content should always supersede the action. If the content is worth exposing then the action should be deemed heroic rather than criminal.
Locking someone in jail for years for exposing animal abuse, while conversely not punishing those who are abusing animals is backward, and tilting significantly towards authoritarian in practice. Ag-gag laws should not exist. The mostly meat-consuming public deserves to know how their food moves from life to plate; they deserve to know what kind of industry their money supports.
Art by Adam Maria
Adam is an artist from Brooklyn. He’s currently working on his first graphic novel. Follow his work on Tumblr.
Written by Jesse Mechanic
Jesse Mechanic is the editor in chief of The Overgrown.