May 16, 2013

Ag-Gag bill’s First Amendment issues lead to Tennessee governor’s veto

Undercover video surveillance of animal cruelty in Tennessee will not have to be surrendered to law enforcement, thanks to the veto this week of an “Animal Cruelty and Abuse Act” that would have effectively criminalized abuse investigations. The bill would have required any “person who intentionally records . . . for the purpose of documenting the offense of cruelty to animals committed against livestock, within 48 hours, or by the close of business the next business day, whichever is later, to [r]eport such violation to a law enforcement agency with jurisdiction over the alleged offense; and [s]ubmit any unedited photographs, digital images or video recordings to law enforcement authorities.” Failure to do so would have been a Class C misdemeanor offense.

Ag-Gag bills have been passed or proposed in some 17 states–despite significant First Amendment violations. As Wayne Pacelle, HSUS president and CEO, has said, “It’s the wrong policy to punish the person who exposes cruelty, instead of the person who perpetrates it.” In suppressing and chilling speech, Ag-Gag legislation aims at activists, not abusers. The effect of Ag-Gag laws is to silence whistleblowers and deny consumers the right to know how farmed animals are treated before being killed for food.

Multiple undercover investigations have recorded workers punching and kicking pigs, stomping on turkeys, and forcing crippled and sick cows onto fork lifts to be hauled to slaughter. The power of video to expose such egregious animal cruelty has led to slaughterhouse closings, animal cruelty convictions, and the largest beef recall in U.S. history. Video evidence can also expose environmental abuse. Farmed animal feeding operations, for example, generate huge amounts of waste that can and does threaten soil and water. Factory farms and other industrial facilities have been found flagrantly violating federal and state laws that require minimizing environmental damage because of undercover investigations that have exposed the violations.

But activists’ use of video to throw open the slaughterhouse door has the power to accomplish something even more important for animals and the environment. It can shape the perception that animal welfare improvements are not enough and that animal exploitation must end. As Professor Gary Francione has noted, we “need to get people thinking differently about animal ethics. We need to focus people away from the issue of treatment–and away from the idea that there is “abusive” treatment and “non-abusive” treatment–-and toward the idea that we cannot morally justify use. Period.” The more that Ag-Gag laws shield animal cruelty from public view, the less the public believes that it is occurring anymore, and the easier it becomes convinced that “humane” animal exploitation is not itself horrific cruelty that is simply not morally acceptable.

Our Portland animal lawyers consider cases involving defense of animal and environmental activism, including undercover investigations, whistleblowing, and protest activity. Contact us for a free confidential consultation.

Related First Amendment Resources
Lauren Gazzola, “Ag-Gagging”: Are We Kept in the Dark, or Willfully Blind When it Comes to Animal Cruelty?, Common Dreams, May 14, 2013.
Gary L. Francione, A Brief Note on “Ag-Gag” Laws, Animal Rights: The Abolitionist Approach.

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