NEW YORK—The ASPCA® (The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals®) and a broad spectrum of public interest groups today welcomed the defeat of all 11 ag-gag/anti-whistleblower bills that were introduced during 2013 legislative sessions across the country. North Carolina’s session ended on Friday without a vote on Senate Bill (SB) 648, which would have suppressed whistleblower investigations at farms and other facilities. In addition to North Carolina, ag-gag/anti-whistleblower legislation was introduced this year in Arkansas, California, Indiana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Vermont and Wyoming, but no bills became law.
Ag-gag bills usually contain one or more of three provisions designed to suppress whistleblowing: the ban of photography/video on premises; the criminalization of securing a job under “false pretenses” (whistleblowers sometimes gain employment at facilities in order to obtain evidence of cruelty); and mandatory reporting of documented abuse within a short and arbitrary timeframe. Mandatory reporting provisions became more common in the most recent legislative sessions, and while on their face appear to support prosecution of abuse, actually hinder meaningful and effective investigations by mandating reporting before adequate documentation can occur. North Carolina’s bill included all three types of provisions.
Because ag-gag/whistleblower suppression bills aim to criminalize investigations on agricultural facilities that can expose animal welfare, worker, environmental, food safety and other violations and abuse through unconstitutional provisions, a wide array of interest groups have strongly opposed them, including civil liberties, environmental, prosecution, First Amendment, labor and even some farming organizations—70 of which have signed a strong opposition statement.
A 2012 nationwide poll commissioned by the ASPCA revealed that 71 percent of Americans support undercover investigative efforts by animal welfare organizations to expose animal abuse on industrial farms, and 64 percent oppose making such efforts illegal. Despite public opinion, ag-gag laws have continued to gain momentum.
This month, a lawsuit was filed in Utah challenging the constitutionality of an ag-gag law it enacted last year. Utah's law makes it illegal to obtain access to an agricultural operation under false pretenses, such as by providing inaccurate information on a job application.
Nancy Perry, senior vice president of ASPCA Government Relations said: “Ag-gag legislation threatens a wide array of public interests—including animal welfare and food safety—by silencing the very people in a position to document abuse. We hope the defeat of these 11 bills encourages lawmakers to shift their focus toward achieving accountability for those who are inflicting abuse on animals and putting consumers at risk instead of focusing on misleading efforts to suppress whistleblowers who want to expose those problems.”
Gabe Rottman, legislative counsel with the Washington Legislative Office of the American Civil Liberties Union said: “The ag-gag bills proposed this year threatened to virtually eliminate undercover investigations into not just animal abuse, but labor practices, food safety and environmental pollution. The defeat of these bills shows the extent to which these measures are flagrant violations of the public’s will and the First Amendment.”
Lindsey Lusher Shute, executive director of The National Young Farmers Coalition said: “We are proud to be a part of this coalition’s efforts to promote transparency in the American food system. For public health, it's critical that consumers know how their food is being produced.”
Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food & Water Watch said: “The defeat of ag-gag bills across the country is good news for the public, who need to know how their food is produced and what the meat industry has to hide. These bills would have silenced whistleblowers who have repeatedly exposed practices used to raise animals and produce food that endanger public health.”
Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel of the National Press Photographers Association said: “It is gratifying to see that our concerns have been noted that these bills abridge the First Amendment rights of citizens and journalists. These unwarranted and constitutionally suspect proposals were vague and overly broad, and should never have been proposed."
Amanda Hitt, director of the Food Integrity Campaign at the Government Accountability Project said: “The mere suggestion that any state would criminalize truth telling in agriculture creates a chilling effect for would-be whistleblowers. But the public has spoken and clearly prefers to know the truth about what’s for dinner. Hopefully other states are watching and reconsidering ag-gag.”
Rachel Meeropol, senior staff attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights said: “As with the federal Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, state ag-gag laws stem from an industry effort to silence non-violent protesters, protect profits, and make activism unlawful. Fortunately, the tide seems to be turning, as efforts to silence those who expose corporate wrongdoing are defeated in state after state.”
Joann Lo, executive director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance said: “The Food Chain Workers Alliance is relieved that all of the whistleblower suppression bills proposed this year did not pass. These bills would have limited workers ability to speak up about dangerous working conditions and practices, not only in the food system but throughout all industries. Instead of focusing on limiting free speech, these legislatures should improve working conditions and protect public health, food safety, and animal welfare.”
For more information on this issue, please visit www.aspca.org/ag-gag. To join the ASPCA Advocacy Brigade, please visit www.aspca.org/advocacy.