3 Reasons Ag-Gag Laws are Unconstitutional

Utah, like several other states, has made whistle-blowing a crime. If you want to let the public know which agricultural companies are breaking laws — including those addressing animal cruelty, worker safety, the environment and food safety — then Utah wants you in prison. Statutes criminalizing this kind of whistle-blowing are commonly known as “ag-gag” laws.

It seems rather obvious that ag-gag violates the Constitution (free speech, anyone?), and a group of individuals and organizations has just filed a federal lawsuit arguing exactly that. The Animal Legal Defense Fund, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, investigative journalism site Counterpunch, and five individuals (including activist Amy Meyer and journalist Will Potter), started litigation in Salt Lake City alleging that Utah’s ag-gag law is unconstitutional.

Ag-gag is also an extreme and frightening example of wealthy special interests controlling our government to our detriment. The only ones ag-gag laws help are the owners of factory farming facilities that torture animals, abuse workers and sell tainted meat, dairy and eggs to consumers. The animals, workers, the environment and we the people get nothing but screwed.

The sponsor of the ag-gag law in Utah’s House of Representatives said the intent behind the legislation was to stop “national propaganda groups” from using recordings of industrial agriculture companies’ operations with the goal of “undoing animal agriculture,” according to the complaint that started the new lawsuit. These statutes are animal agriculture’s way of silencing critics.

Utah’s law provides criminal punishment for what it calls “agricultural operation interference.” An agricultural operation is “private property used for the production of livestock, poultry, livestock products, or poultry products.” So we’re talking about any business that exploits and kills animals for their meat, milk or eggs.

A person can break that law, or “interfere,” in several ways:

1. Recording images or sounds from an operation with a recording device left on the property;

2. Using false pretenses to gain access to an operation;

3. Recording while criminally trespassing on an agricultural operation; or

4. Getting a job at an agricultural operation with the intent of recording activities there, then making the recordings while knowing that doing so is against company policy.

The penalty for any of these actions is up to a year in prison and fines. It appears likely that each separate photograph could be a separate crime, meaning someone who took 50 photographs of pork contaminated with feces could be sentenced to up to 50 years in prison.

The law’s passage has factory farm owners and boosters drunk with power. They arrested and pressed charges against Amy Meyer for recording activities at a slaughterhouse — while she was standing across the street from it on a public sidewalk. Here is some of her video of a person who seems to be the slaughterhouse owner, and of a cop, trying to bully her into leaving.

Meyer had to hire a lawyer and enter a plea in court before the avalanche of bad media forced authorities to drop the charges. If you’re in an ag-gag state, think twice before you whip out your phone and hit “record” in public.

Applying these laws to a different context, like child abuse, crystallizes just how dangerous they are. If parents who suspected abuse at their children’s day care center hid a video camera there to see how employees treated their kids, they would be guilty under an ag-gag type law. If they had someone apply for a job at the center in order to tape the goings-on, that person would be guilty, and so would the parents. They could all be thrown in prison for trying to protect their children. If the people who care can’t enforce laws (like the ones protecting our food supply and animals), then who will?

It doesn’t seem fair that businesses can record us, even when we are walking on public sidewalks — just look up in any major city and you’ll see the security cameras — but we can’t record them. Why do corporate citizens get more protection, and get to be more invasive, than actual human beings?

Well, they don’t, if the Constitution has its way. The new lawsuit describes how ag-gag laws like Utah’s violate three different parts of the U.S. Constitution.

1. The Free Speech Clause, First Amendment.

“Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”

Ag-gag criminalizes speech based on its content by prohibiting criticism of factory farming. It stops the press from conducting exposes about where our food comes from. Yet it permits factory farm owners to record and publish any kind of self-flattering material they want. Methinks that it is industrial agriculture that has the “national propaganda groups.”

2. The Supremacy Clause, Article VI.

“This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof…shall be the supreme Law of the Land…any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.”

The federal government is in charge. When it doesn’t have laws about something — like robbing people, for example — states are welcome to make their own laws. But when Congress or the Constitution does have a rule about something, the states can’t override it.

Yet that is what Utah is trying to do. By preventing the discovery and recording of violations of federal animal cruelty, worker safety, environmental and food safety laws, the state’s ag-gag statute makes them impossible to enforce. The state has gutted a whole passel of federal laws in one blow. The founding fathers made that a no-no.

3. Equal Protection Clause, Fourteenth Amendment.

“No State shall make or enforce any law which shall…deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

The plaintiffs’ lawsuit against Utah’s version of ag-gag notes that “the law is motivated by animus towards a politically unpopular group — animal protection advocates.” It is pretty hard to deny. The tycoons who make their money off the suffering of animals, exploitation of low-wage (and mostly undocumented immigrant) workers, destruction of the environment and endangerment of consumers’ health most assuredly hate animal advocates who work to expose them, and Utah’s ag-gag law most assuredly came straight from those tycoons. Animal advocates, as well as immigrant advocates, environmentalists and food safety advocates are entitled to as much protection from Utah’s legislature as the factory farmers get.

Many state governments that have or want ag-gag laws will watch this lawsuit closely. It is now up to the courts to remind states that corporations cannot buy themselves a free pass to break any laws they want and toss their critics into prison.

Related Stories:

One More Ag-Gag Bill Bites the Dust

California and Indiana Kill Ag-Gag Bills, But the Fight’s Not Over

Woman Faced Jail Time for Dastardly Crime of Filming A Slaughterhouse

Photo credit: Ingram Publishing/Thinkstock


Jim Ven
Jim Ven3 years ago

thanks for the article.

Clare M.
Clare M4 years ago

Another step closer to a total police state. Will it come to a point where you can be sued for reporting a crime? If animals are being mistreated or killed in an illegal manner then a law has been broke, simple !

Diana Hudspeth
Diana Hudspeth5 years ago

Something serious must be done to owners of slaughter houses that are inhumanely treating any kind of animal.period. And done to laws protecting these owner/manager/workers/ that protect the offender and NOT the innocent. Why are hands tied on these issues?????????? There is absolutely NO EXCUSE, America...just give up meats.

Julia Sergueeva
Julia Sergeeva5 years ago

Any life, no matter whose this life is - human's or animal's - is more important than any private property right!!!!!! SImply because it's a LIFE!!!!!! ANIMALS, they are just like us, we are the creatures of the same God, animals are given only ONE LIFE, just like people, so why don't we respect this life? Who made us in charge to choose who to kill, who to torture, who to mutilate, who to make suffer physical as well as emotional pain???? They are speechless, they can't protect themselves and that's why they are even more vulnerable, and if we think that humans are the strongest and most powerful in this world, then shouldn't we PROTECT the weakest???
Nobody has a right to do the horrific things that take place in the slaughterhouses all over the world, and to talk about these horrors is not a crime, but a duty of any responsible citizen!!!!
It's states who commit a crime making these laws!!!!
And it seems like they forgot the fundamental principle - everybody is equal under the law. Shame shame shame...

Carrie-Anne Brown

thanks for sharing

David F.
David F.5 years ago

Kevin, you may be right , the founders probably would not have supported such laws unless they violated another sacred law “Property rights” so they provided means for the people to petition and vote a representative to re-write the laws. They stressed a nation of laws so much that the supreme court ruled: Obama’s mentor, Bills Ayers, admitting to engaging in bombings of New York City Police Headquarters in 1970, of the Capitol building in 1971, and the Pentagon in 1972. had to be released, because the law said he had to have his Miranda rights read to him. Now he teaches socialism as a “distinguished professor”. Amy Meyer should have been arrested.

Kevin Brown
Kevin Brown5 years ago

David there is nothing in the constitution like the ag-gag laws. The founders were interested in protecting private property from being violated by the state, but they never would have supported such overreaching laws and would never allow such laws to interfere with the First Amendment freedom of speech and freedom of press.

These laws amount to prior restraint and would have stopped great writers like Upton Sinclair from writing "The Jungle." If someone trespasses on your property you can sue them, not use prior restraint.

David F.
David F.5 years ago

Kevin, Free speech was sacred, truth and Justice was sacred, property rights were sacred, “more important” is not in the constitution. None overruled the other in order to justify the ends by illegal means. As I said, If one doesn’t like a law, or lack of a law, then the constitution has provisions to correct.

Kevin Brown
Kevin Brown5 years ago

David F. said "The founders of this country believed that private property rights was sacred, the basis for all to work and develop a nation"

No David, they believed that freedom of speech was sacred, that truth and justice were sacred, property rights were certainly important, but not more important than free speech, truth and justice.

Crimes against property should be dealt with by property laws, like the laws of trespass, not these horrible broadly written laws that hide the truth and stifle freedom of speech. Our founders WOULD NOT have approved of such overreaching laws.

Read more: http://www.care2.com/causes/3-reasons-ag-gag-laws-are-unconstitutional.html#ixzz2aU5e2Io7

David F.
David F.5 years ago

Lisa, Sivlia, Nicole, Dianne, and most others on Care2 all have pets that consume animals in order to survive and please their owners. Veggies or not, they pay the almighty dollar for someone else to kill and process their animals. That fine and great, I just don’t understand the hypocrisy to advocate the violation of their constitutional rights of the very people they pay for their services.