The video above exposed horrific abuse at a Butterball turkey semen collection facility in Shannon, North Carolina. Made by animal rights' group Mercy for Animals during a three week undercover investigation, the video has been directly credited for prompting prosecution and conviction of 5 Butterball employees.
Criminalizing the whistleblowers
But if a measure introduced in the North Carolina senate called the Commerce Protection Act passes, it would be the makers of these videos themselves that would be the target of criminal prosecution. According to Source Watch, the North Carolina bill includes a ban on photography on agricultural operations without express consent of the owner, measures to further criminalize job application fraud by those seeking access to farms for investigative purposes, and a provision to force investigators to hand over footage or other evidence to law enforcement within 24 hours. (A timeframe which animal investigators claim is far too short for them to effectively collect and document evidence of abuse.)
Sadly, such "Ag Gag" measures are far from isolated.
As Chris posted yesterday, state-level legislation to limit or criminalize undercover farm investigations is all too commonplace, and many bills have almost identical wording and measures—confirming activists' and free speach advocates' fears that this is a coordinated push to silence citizen investigations. In fact, so many bills were introduced at the beginning of the year that it prompted Grist to question whether 2013 would be the year of ag-gag bills.
While attempts to pass Ag-Gag bills in Minnesota, Nebraska, Indiana, New York and other states have either died or been defeated—Montana, North Dakota, Kansas and Iowa have successfully passed such legislation, as have Iowa and Missouri. And that just appears to be the beginning.
But as legislators craft remarkably similar bills, food activists like the Food Integrity Campaign are also coordinating a push back. Sometimes with tongue planted firmly in cheek:
Legislation against fraud and slander is, of course, not always a bad thing. Legislating against investigative reporting, however, is a deeply slippery slope—especially in a food system that has been shown to be rife with health risks, abuse, cruelty and a profound lack of transparency. Now if such Ag-Gag bills also mandated photographs of actual conditions on all packaging, live webcams at every operation, as well as criminalizing the use of false illustrations of blissful red barns and happy hens, we might be on to something. Unfortunately, I suspect they won't.
So where are the next battlefields?
Below is a state-by-state look at legislation that has been proposed in 2013. (Disclosure: I leaned heavily on Source Watch's summary of Ag-Gag bills in the compiling of this list. Please use the comments section below to report any inaccuracies.)
As mentioned above, the proposed Commerce Protection Act introduced in the NC Senate includes provisions to outlaw photography or secret videotaping on a farm facility, criminalize anyone who gains access to a farm as an employee under false pretenses, as well as mandating that unedited footage and evidence be handed over to investigative authorities within 24 hours of it being obtained. Ironically, as reported by the Center for Media and Democracy, the legislation was introduced on the same day that a 5th Butterball employee pled guilty to animal cruelty charges:
How did North Carolina state Senators Brent Jackson, Wesley Meredith, and Jim Davis respond to the scandal? On April 2, 2013, the same day that the fifth Butterball employee pled guilty, they introduced a bill called the "Commerce Protection Act." It didn't mention animal agriculture, so it might have flown underneath the radar. But as independent journalist Will Potter pointed out, the bill is yet another "ag gag" bill, with similar language and provisions to at least ten others moving across the country in 2013.
In Vermont, the state Senate has just introduced an act relating to agricultural fraud , threatening fines of up to $1000 against anyone who makes a false statement as part of an application to be employed at an agricultural facility. (Similar legislation passed in Iowa in 2011.)
The New Mexico senate, meanwhile, has introduced the Livestock Operation Interference Act, which again would outlaw photography or video on farms without the owners' permission.
In California, where the above video was shot, the state Assembly is considering the Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act—a bill that bares the same name as ALEC's model Ag-Gag bill, by the waw—and which, like the North Carolina measure, mandates any video obtained be handed over to law enforcement within 24 hours
Tennessee also has legislation pending that requires photographs or video recordings be handed over to law enforcement within 24 hours.
In Illinois, legislators have taken a different path—amending the Humane Care for Animals Act to include a provision that in the case of any false or unfounded complaints under the act that are made for the purposes of harassment, confidentiality of the complainant may be waved, and the case may be referred for criminal prosecution.
Pennsylvania House Bill 683, introduced in February of 2013 and currently referred to the judiciary, is another bill criminalizing the covert recording of sound or images on farms, as well as making false claims in applications for employment. The bill would make such offenses second or third degree felonies.
In Arkansas, two bills were introduced by Senator Gary Stubblefield, the first of which updates animal cruelty laws to outlaw an "improper animal cruelty investigation" by anyone who is not a certified "law enforcement officer". The second follows the example of other Ag-Gag bills by outlawing the collection of imagery and targeting the practice of gaining employment under false pretenses.
Nebraska's bill also targets prompt reporting of any complaints (over-prompt reporting, say advocates, mandating unrealistic timeframes for disclosure). According to Source Watch, this is a marked shift in the focus of Ag-Gag bills, although advocates still claim the end goal is the same:
"This has been called an "evolution" from 2012’s set of "ag gag" bills "because the classic prohibitions against the unauthorized audio-video recording of farm animals under the threat of felony conviction with some real hard prison time has shown up only in Wyoming" in 2013. This evolutionary change can be traced to the bill as modified in Missouri in 2012, which first put an emphasis on quick reporting."
In Wyoming, HB126 would establish "interference with an agricultural operation" as a criminal offense, and once again ban covert videotaping or photography. Investigators who report abuse to local police within 48 hours will, apparently, be exempt from liability on civil charges but criminal charges may remain.
New Hampshire's HB110 also mandates that any evidence of animal cruelty be handed over to law enforcement, a seemingly innocuous ask, but it is the focus on quick reporting that has many animal advocates worried.
Despite a failed bill in 2012, Indiana now has two new pieces of legislation pending. The first, SB373, makes it unlawful to record or photograph farm or industrial operations unless footage is handed over to law enforcement. This bill has passed the Senate and is being referred to House. The second bill, SB391, "requires the board of animal health to establish a registry of persons convicted of crimes concerning agricultural operations and livestock."