In 2002, the corporate lobby group ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council) put forward a model law which they handed off to lawmakers across the United States. This act, called the “Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act” had one purpose in mind: to silence whistleblowers and to prevent activists and concerned citizens from exposing the widespread abuse of animals in factory farms.
Legislation based on this highly controversial and widely unpopular act has been introduced in several states. While it has so far failed in many, six states currently have ag-gag laws on the books. Australia has also introduced its own version of ag-gag laws.
In many states, these repressive laws have been repealed or defeated. But the battle is ongoing, and it’s one that everyone who cares about the well-being of animals should be paying attention to. If nothing else, these draconian pieces of legislation tell us much about the nature of the animal farming industry and the relationship between corporate profits and the cruelty that is so common in factory farms.
What Ag-Gag Laws are For
Ag-gag laws specifically prohibit the covert filming or recording of activity on farms without permission. The explicit purpose of these laws is to prevent animal rights activists from releasing footage showing the public what actually goes on behind the closed doors of the facilities which produce the meat that most Americans eat. And there’s good reason for why the industry would want to prevent such footage from being released.
The horrific (and often illegal) treatment of non-human animals in these facilities has been well-documented by exactly these kinds of covert videos, giving the public a view into the world behind the milk cartons and vacuum-sealed supermarket packages — a world that is quite a bit different from that which is presented in advertisements. If it weren’t for the videos taken by activists who go undercover working in these farms to make this information available to the public, then we simply would have no way of knowing what conditions there were actually like in these facilities. Because no one else is telling us, least of all the agricultural industry itself.
The purpose, therefore, of these laws is to keep the animal farming industry shrouded in secrecy. Of course, this sort of anti-democratic secrecy is not limited to factory farming. Corporate secrecy is more the rule than the exception. That this sort of legislation is now being fought over across the United States is just one indication of a larger pattern, which is the influence of corporate money on our legal and political systems. The seriousness of this problem is apparent right in the name of the act put forward by ALEC: the “Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act”
That releasing videos of what is actually going on in this industry could be labeled ‘terrorism’ is chilling. And that, of course, is the point. As journalist Glen Greenwald has pointed out, the white supremacist who murdered nine people in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church was declared by the FBI not to be a terrorist before he was even apprehended, and yet animal rights activists have been accused of terrorism for activity which harmed only property and profits, and which actually saves lives.
The Broader Context
It isn’t just animal rights activists who are targeted by these chilling laws meant to silence dissent. The proposed law which failed to pass in Pennsylvania would equally have applied to filming the everyday activity on gas fracking wells. Meanwhile, law enforcement in Canada has labeled environmental and indigenous activists as terrorists threats, with the RCMP specifically pointing to the “anti-petroleum movement” as a national security threat.
That law enforcement and the legal system should be siding with corporate interests over and against the legitimate and democratic opposition of citizens is a disturbing trend. Regardless of one’s moral or political leanings, the fact that the state has shown itself to be willing to target non-violent and reasonable acts of opposition to corporate power with anti-terrorism legislation should be an alarming wake-up call.
The liberal democratic principles upon which our society is founded depend upon the capacity of citizens to make informed choices. Freedom of speech is foundational to any form of democracy. Legislation like these ag-gag laws and the corporate lobbyist such as ALEC who promote them are actively working to undermine these basic democratic prerequisites. The factory farming industry regularly lies to the public about the conditions on their facilities, just as fossil fuel companies have been lying for decades about the dangers of climate change. Will we allow our governments to make it a crime to expose those lies?
A turkey with rotting eyes found during an undercover investigation at a factory farm in North Carolina owned by Butterball, by Mercy for Animals, CC BY 2.0