What are ag-gag laws?
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.
Form and effect of ag-gag laws
Although the precise details of ag-gag style legislation vary between jurisdictions, they hold in common the effect of deterring activists and journalists from documenting and making public the treatment of animals on factory farms.
Ag-gag laws are often aimed at limiting the activities of undercover investigators, whistle-blowers and journalists.
They may take various forms, including:
- Laws criminalising undercover or covert surveillance of commercial animal facilities.
- Laws requiring that any obtained footage of animal cruelty must be turned over to enforcement agencies immediately.
- Laws requiring potential employees of commercial animal facilities to disclose current or past ties to animal protection groups.
Ag-gag in the USA
Ag-gag laws have been implemented in a number of states across the US, including Alabama, Iowa, Texas and North Carolina.1 A number of these laws have been successfully challenged on constitutional grounds, with courts ruling that they breach the First Amendment to the US Constitution (freedom of speech).2
Ag-gag in Australia
Ag-gag laws already exist in Australia, with more currently proposed at both the Federal and State/Territory levels.3 Although these laws are often expressed as having general application, they predominantly impact on Australian animal advocates involved in gathering and releasing undercover footage captured in agricultural facilities. This sort of footage has exposed extreme examples of animal cruelty, neglect and violations of animal protection laws, as well as legalised cruelty.4 For example, the cruel and illegal practice of live baiting in the greyhound racing industry was exposed as a result of undercover investigations by animal protection advocates.5
Why do animal advocates gather undercover footage?
Animal advocates seek to expose animal cruelty, in a bid to raise awareness amongst the public of legalised animal cruelty, as well as to detect breaches of animal welfare legislation. Unlike any other area of criminal law, the vast majority of animal cruelty complaints are investigated and prosecuted by non-profit charitable organisations, who are largely dependent on donations from the public. While the work of these organisations is commendable, resource constraints and limited funding directly impact on their ability to monitor and enforce the law effectively.6 As a result, the vast majority of animal cruelty and welfare concerns go undetected.
In the absence of mandatory surveillance, animal advocates sometimes utilise undercover surveillance to help improve the monitoring and enforcement of animal protection laws by exposing cruelty incidents that would otherwise be unobserved and unprosecuted. Footage acquired through surveillance has the potential to be used in criminal prosecutions against individuals or corporations charged with animal cruelty.7
Why are animal advocates opposed to ag-gag laws?
Various Australian animal protection groups and advocates oppose the expansion of ag-gag laws in Australia. The position is well-explained by lawyer and co-founder of the Australian Animal Defenders Office, Tara Ward:
There are many problematic aspects of ag-gag laws. They don’t tackle the real issues, such as legalised cruelty to animals in factory farming and slaughterhouses, and extremely low penalties for animal cruelty and neglect in animal welfare laws. Instead of punishing those responsible for animal suffering, they punish the whistle-blowers or ‘messengers’. They stifle rather than encourage industry transparency and visibility, and make it more difficult to obtain evidence of sustained animal abuse carried out in animal enterprises over a period of time. They don’t protect the public interest in knowing how food animals are treated, and they stifle freedom of speech and assembly and the right to protest. In doing so, they prioritise industry profits above both animal welfare and the public interest in enforcing anti-cruelty laws.
Animal advocates argue that surveillance has long been used in Australia and abroad to increase transparency and encourage accountability, as most farmed animals are raised behind closed doors beyond public scrutiny. Broadcasting surveillance footage from inside these facilities promotes public awareness of farmed animal welfare, leading to open dialogue, which is essential in shaping public opinion and encouraging law reform.
In his judgment in the High Court case of Australian Broadcasting Corporation v Lenah Game Meats Pty Ltd (2001) 208 CLR 199,8 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.
How could transparency and accountability be improved?
The enforcement of animal protection laws could 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.9
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 underfunded charitable organisations to perform these functions.
Voiceless further supports the introduction of Independent Offices of Animal Welfare at the Federal, State/Territory levels, to help improve independence and regulatory oversight.
- Read a discussion of ag-gag laws in Australia by Animal Defenders Office lawyer Tara Ward on the Voiceless Blog.
- Watch the presentations from the 2014 Voiceless Animal Law Lecture Series.
- Read Voiceless’s law reform submissions on the topic: ‘Serious Invasions of Privacy in the Digital Era’, ‘The Framework for a NSW Biosecurity Act’ and ‘Criminal Code Amendment (Animal Protection) Bill 2015’.
Voiceless has not and does not condone or encourage any illegal activities.
Last updated July 2019.
- 1. For a list of states in the US where ag-gag legislation has been passed, see: The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, ‘What is Ag-Gag Legislation?’ https://www.aspca.org/animal-protection/public-policy/what-ag-gag-legisl…
- 2. Ibid.
- 3. For example, the Commonwealth Government recently introduced the Criminal Code Amendment (Agricultural Protection) Bill 2019 which introduces two new offences relating to the incitement of trespass or property offences on agricultural land in Australia. In May 2019, the Victorian Legislative Council established an inquiry into the effectiveness of legislation and other measures to prevent and deter activities by unauthorised persons on agricultural and associated industries. In April 2019, Queensland’s Biosecurity Regulation 2016 was amended to increase penalties for people posing a threat to biosecurity. In NSW, new penalties for farm trespass will come into force in August 2019, with on-the-spot fines of $1,000 and further fines of up to $220,000 for individuals and $440,000 for corporations. The Western Australian Government is considering similar legislative changes.
- 4. See, for example, the footage filmed at a poultry facility in Victoria: Latika Bourke, ‘Investigation launched into shocking abuse of chickens’ (19 June 2019) The Sydney Morning Herald https://www.smh.com.au/business/companies/investigation-launched-into-sh…
- 5. See the Four Corners episode ‘Making a Killing’ (2015) https://www.abc.net.au/4corners/making-a-killing/6127124
- 6. In 2016-2017, only 0.6% of all animal cruelty complaints referred to the RSPCA resulted in any form of criminal prosecution, with even fewer resulting in a successful prosecution: RSPCA Australia, RSPCA Australia National Statistics 2016-2017 https://www.rspca.org.au/sites/default/files/RSPCA%20Australia%20Annual%…
- 7. 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.
- 8. Australian Broadcasting Corporation v Lenah Game Meats Pty Ltd (2001) 208 CLR 199, 218. 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. Read a full case note here: https://voiceless.org.au/content/case-note-abc-v-lenah-game-meats
- 9. Attempts have been made to introduce mandatory CCTV recording of operations in abbatoirs in Australia, such as the lapsed Food Amendment (Recording of Abbatoir Operations) Bill 2015 put forward by the NSW Greens party.