Undercovered: ‘Ag-Gag’ Laws — How Big Agra Tries to Muzzle Journalists

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In an effort to prevent the kind of damning investigative stories that can hinder their operations, Big Agra continues to lobby for laws that muzzle journalists’ abilities to report on animal rights abuses.

But these so-called “ag-gag” laws have implications far beyond factory farming: as their critics have argued, they are affronts to fundamental first-amendment rights, specifically the freedom of the press. (Mark Bittman coined the term “ag-gag” in a 2011 New York Times column.)

Cody Carlson, a former investigator for the Humane Society and Mercy for Animals, wrote in The Atlantic in Mar. 2013 that “a powerful coalition of agribusiness lobbyists and the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council” lobbied for such laws in an effort to “stave off calls for factory farm reform by silencing whistleblowers and stopping the embarrassing product recalls, plant closures, and criminal convictions that often result.”

As of March of this year, the ASPCA counts seven states that have passed “ag-gag” bills into law.

Many of these laws make it illegal for investigators to misrepresent themselves (as employees, say) when gaining entrance to places they wish to investigate, though there are other ways to stifle whistleblowing reporting. A bill introduced in Colorado would make it a misdemeanor if someone waits two days to report animal cruelty after witnessing it. If passed, such a bill would crimp the kind of long-term investigation that would allow a journalist to argue such abuse was part of a pattern, as opposed to an isolated incident.

In a column published last week, Nancy Fink Huehnergarth writes in Forbes that lobbyists have attempted to keep the agricultural business dealings out of the public eye:

Big Ag has convinced House Republicans to include language in the proposed 2017 House Agricultural Appropriations bill that would exempt agricultural commodity groups from Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

There is a promising sign that ag-gag laws, if challenged, will fail in federal court. A district judge ruled in Aug. 2015 that one such law in Idaho was unconstitutional — but that ruling has done nothing to stop the proliferation of similar laws in other states.

One of them — a North Carolina law that went into effect in January of this year — took the implications of such legislation well beyond the agricultural sector, effectively empowering any private business-owner with a muzzle against members of the press snooping around. The law is being challenged in court.

New York Times editorial condemning the law noted that if someone were to be caught “secretly taping abuses of elderly patients or farm animals and then sharing the recording with the media or an advocacy group,” they could be liable for damages arising from such investigations.

Niche publications for the farming industry and advocacy groups for animal rights have done an admirable job tracking the progress of various ag-gag bills on a state-by-state basis and measuring their impact within the industry. Given the ramifications for muckraking in general, which extend beyond the agra sector, we feel this story deserves a wider audience.

“Undercovered” is a new daily feature from Mediaite, bringing attention to stories that warrant more attention. If you have an idea or a tip, please email us at [email protected]

[image via shutterstock]


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