As industrialized farming (also known as factory farming) has become more common in our nation’s culture, concern for the welfare of farmed animals has increased, as well. Because of this, many animal protection organizations have made undercover investigations of industrialized farming operations an integral part of their missions. The goal of these investigations is to expose possible abuse of farmed animals that would otherwise be hidden from the public. Many investigations have indeed exposed rampant farmed animal abuse, which has led to grave economic consequences for industrialized farming operations; in some cases the farms even have to shut down.
Ag-gag laws were introduced as a response to undercover investigations. They prohibit or restrict recording at industrialized farming operations. Prior to 2011, similar laws, known as ecoterrorism laws, were passed to protect industrialized farming operations from trespassers looking to damage property. Modern-day (post-2011) ag-gag laws, though, are more focused on preventing economic damage than actual physical harm. Proponents argue that they are a safeguard to protect well-meaning farmers against animal protection organizations who present the footage in a misleading way, while opponents argue ag-gag laws are meant to hide animal abuse from the public and that these laws allow industrialized farming operations to put profit ahead of farmed animal welfare.
Ag-gag laws generally fall into one of three categories or a combination of two or all types. The first modern-day ag-gag laws are known as “agricultural interference” laws, and they ban recording images or sounds at industrialized farming operations without the owner’s consent. “Agricultural fraud” laws were also introduced early on; this kind of ag-gag law bans entering or applying for employment at industrialized farming operations under false pretenses. Many ag-gag bills introduced in 2011-2012 were “agricultural interference” and “agricultural fraud” hybrids. Because legislators ran into problems passing these kind of ag-gag laws, a new type of ag-gag emerged in late 2012. This kind is known as “rapid-reporting” legislation and it mandates that anyone who records an image or sound at an industrialized farming operation turn the recording over to authorities within a specified amount of time, usually twenty-four to forty-eight hours.
Twenty-five states have attempted to pass modern-day ag-gag laws, and six of those states have succeeded. The states that have passed ag-gag laws are (in chronological order), Iowa Utah, Missouri, Idaho, Wyoming, and North Carolina. The first five impose criminal penalties, while North Carolina’s is the first ag-gag law in the nation to impose a civil sanction.
Utah and Idaho’s ag-gag laws were challenged in court on the grounds that they are unconstitutional. Idaho’s law was struck down by the United States District Court in 2015 as a violation of free speech and equal protection. A decision in the Utah court is pending.