What is ag-gag?
The term “ag-gag” describes a variety of laws which seek to hinder or “gag” animal protection advocates by limiting or preventing them from recording the operations of commercial agricultural facilities, or from making those recordings public.
Ag-gag laws have been implemented in a number of states across the US.1 The precise details of the legislation vary from state to state, but the effect is always the same: to deter activists and journalists from documenting and making public the treatment of animals on factory farms and to obscure the truth about where our food comes from.
Ag-gag laws generally target undercover investigators, whistleblowers and journalists, and may take three forms:
- They criminalise the undercover or covert surveillance of commercial animal facilities.
- They require that any obtained footage of animal cruelty must be turned over to enforcement agencies immediately, stifling long-term investigations into systemic animal abuse.
- They require potential employees of commercial animal facilities to disclose current or past ties to animal protection groups.
Ag-gag in Australia
In recent years, Australian animal advocates have become increasingly effective in gathering and releasing undercover footage captured in agricultural facilities. Much of this footage exposes extreme examples of animal cruelty, neglect, violations of animal protection laws and legalised cruelty.2
Animal advocates have also begun collecting footage using unmanned aerial vehicles – also known as drones – to monitor the welfare of cattle in feedlots and to verify the welfare claims of ‘free range’ farms.3
As a result, politicians from both of the major political parties are calling for the introduction of ag-gag legislation.4
In 2013, the NSW Minister for Primary Industries, Katrina Hodgkinson observed that “it seems every week now where you’ve got animal activists breaking into intensive farms … these people are vandals. These people are akin to terrorists.”5 She labelled undercover activities by animal advocates as fanaticism, radicalism and terrorism – language that has featured prominently in the US – and said that she would do everything in her power to cease the activities of animal activists.6
Surveillance encourages transparency
Surveillance has long been used by animal advocates in Australia and abroad.
Most farmed animals are raised behind closed doors, their treatment and suffering hidden beyond public scrutiny. As such, surveillance footage, which is often graphic and confronting, promotes public awareness of these issues. This in turn leads to open dialogue, which is essential in shaping public opinion and encouraging law reform.
Such surveillance can be both lawful and unlawful. While Voiceless does not endorse unlawful behaviour, it acknowledges the benefit of surveillance in the areas of animal and consumer protection.
In his judgement in the High Court case of Lenah Game Meats Pty Limited v Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Voiceless Patron and former Justice of the High Court of Australia the Hon. Michael Kirby, defended the media’s use of surveillance footage obtained by animal activists on public interest grounds:
“Parliamentary democracies, such as Australia, operate effectively when they are stimulated by debate promoted by community groups. To be successful, such debate often requires media attention. Improvements in the condition of circus animals, in the transport of live sheep for export and in the condition of battery hens followed such community debate.”9
Advocates expose illegal animal cruelty
Animal cruelty (including legalised cruelty), neglect and violations of animal protection laws are a reality of factory farming. In Australia, the vast majority of cruelty complaints are prosecuted by non-profit charitable organisations like the RSPCA, and in NSW, the Animal Welfare League. While the work of these organisations is commendable, resource constraints10 and limited funding directly impact on their ability to monitor and enforce the law effectively.
As a result, the vast majority of animal cruelty and welfare concerns go undetected.
Undercover surveillance is a key tool for improving the monitoring and enforcement of animal protection laws by exposing incidents that would otherwise not come to the attention of authorities. Surveillance footage – even when it is collected illegally – has the potential to be used in criminal prosecutions against individuals or corporations charged with animal cruelty.11
The enforcement of animal protection laws could easily be improved in the short term through the installation of compulsory CCTV cameras in all commercial animal facilities, allowing authorities to monitor and investigate all incidents of cruelty in farms and slaughterhouses. Additionally, an increase in government funding to regulatory authorities to monitor and enforce animal protection laws is needed, as well as a significant reduction in the overreliance on charitable organisations to perform these functions.
Until governments commit to effective enforcement, we will continue to see animal advocates risking prosecution and their lives to expose animal cruelty.
Privacy and undercover investigation
Surveillance by animal advocates specifically targets the treatment of animals in large scale commercial operations. It is focused on uncovering animal cruelty or neglect and does not aim to target individuals or to violate personal privacy. Voiceless considers such surveillance can be carried out without encroaching upon the private rights of individuals.
In saying that, corporations do not, and in Voiceless’s position should not, have any claim to privacy. Further, if an individual or corporation is found in violation of animal protection laws, they should not be permitted to hide behind a claim of invasion of privacy to avoid punishment or culpability.
You can help us in the fight against ag-gag by:
- Learning more – Find out more about ag-gag laws by reading the Voiceless materials below.
- Contacting your MP – Tell your local MP that you oppose ag-gag laws and that you demand greater oversight of animal industries, such as mandatory CCTV and increased funding to authorities.
- Donating to Voiceless – Help us continue to provide a voice for animals and fight ag-gag by donating today.
- Learn more about ag-gag by watching the presentations from the 2014 Voiceless Animal Law Lecture Series.
- Read Voiceless's submissions on ‘Serious Invasions of Privacy in the Digital Era’, ‘The Framework for a NSW Biosecurity Act’ and ‘Criminal Code Amendment (Animal Protection) Bill 2015’.
- Read our ag-gag legal FAQs.
- Download our ag-gag issues briefing.
Last updated March 2015
- 1. Between 2012 and 2013, ag-gag bills were successfully defeated in eleven states: Arkansas, California, Indiana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Vermont and Wyoming. Ag-gag legislation in some form has been passed in the following US states: Wyoming (2013), Missouri (2012), Utah (2012), Iowa (2012), South Carolina (2011), Washington State (2010), California (2008), Montana (1991), North Dakota (1991) and Kansas (1991). See, for example, The Centre for Media and Democracy, ‘Ag-gag Laws’, Source Watch (22 July 2014) <http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php/Ag-gag_laws>; AnimalVisuals: Visual resources for animals, ‘Ag-gag laws and Factory Farm Investigations Mapped: 2014’ (8 January 2014) <http://www.animalvisuals.org/projects/data/investigations/2014>.
- 2. See, for example, the undercover footage contained on Aussie Farms, ‘Australian Pig Farming: The Inside Story’ (2015) <http://www.aussiepigs.com.au/>.
- 3. Colin Bettles, ‘Spy drones will keep flying’, Farm Online (22 February 2014), <http://www.farmonline.com.au/news/agriculture/cattle/beef/spy-drones-will-keep-flying/2688503.aspx>; Sean Murphy, ‘Animal Liberation activists launch spy drone to test free-range claims’, ABC’s Landline (30 August 2013), <http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-08-30/drone-used-to-record-intensive-farm-production/4921814>.
- 4. Colin Bettles, ‘Senator backs ‘ag gags’, The Australian Dairy Farmer (4 July 2013), <http://adf.farmonline.com.au/news/nationalrural/livestock/other/senator-backs-ag-gags/2660177.aspx>.
- 5. ‘Animal rights activists 'akin to terrorists', says NSW minister Katrina Hodgkinson’, ABC News (18 July 2013), <http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-07-18/animal-rights-activists-27terrorists272c-says-nsw-minister/4828556>.
- 6. ‘Hodgkinson in hot water’, The Daily Advertiser (19 July 2013), <http://www.dailyadvertiser.com.au/story/1648011/hodgkinson-in-hot-water/>.
- 9. Lenah Game Meats Pty Limited v Australian Broadcasting Corporation (2001) 208 CLR 199, . The case involved the undercover filming of a possum abattoir by an animal activist. While the High Court did not reach a final position on this question, the following arguments were put forward: 1. The activities secretly observed and filmed were not relevantly “private”; and 2. If a tort of invasion of privacy were to exist, it ought not to extend to corporations.
- 10. According to the RSPCA, there are only 32 RSPCA inspectors for all of NSW. In 2011-2012, only 0.5% of all animal cruelty complaints referred to the RSPCA resulted in any form of criminal prosecution, with even fewer resulting in a successful prosecution. Of those prosecutions that were brought by the RSPCA, less than 10% involved agricultural animals: ‘RSPCA Australia National Statistics 2011-2012’, <http://www.rspca.org.au/sites/default/files/website/The-facts/Statistics/RSPCA%20Australia%20National%20Statistics%202011-2012.pdf>.
- 11. The Evidence Act 1995 (Cth) states in section 138(1) that, in both civil and criminal proceedings, the admission of improperly or illegally obtained evidence may be allowed in certain circumstances.