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In 2011, bills to prohibit undercover videos of farms were introduced in several state legislatures including Florida, Iowa, Minnesota and New York. These "ag-gag" laws, a term coined by Mark Bittman, all prohibited the making of undercover videos, photographs and sound recordings, although they differed in terms of penalties and which other activities were also prohibited. None of the bills passed in 2011, but Iowa's ag-gag bill passed in 2012 and other ag-gag bills have been introduced in other states.
Kansas was the first state to enact an ag-gag law, in 1990. Montana and North Dakota followed in 1991.
These bills are troubling not only to animal protection activists, but also to those concerned with food safety, labor issues, free speech, and freedom of the press. The bills would apply equally to journalists, activists, and employees. By prohibiting any type of undercover recordings, a farm's own employees would be prohibited from attempting to record food safety violations, labor violations, sexual harassment incidents or other illegal activity. First Amendment concerns were raised because the MN bill would have prohibited the broadcast of undercover videos, and the FL bill originally prohibited any unauthorized photos or videos of a farm, including those shot from a public street.
Undercover photos and videos have been used extensively by the animal protection movement to expose farming cruelty, whether the activity is legal or illegal. These bills are a reaction to the bad publicity that erupts whenever a new undercover video is released.
Proponents of the bills claim that they are necessary to protect agricultural interests, and if animal cruelty or any illegal activity is taking place at a facility, the employees can notify authorities. There are several problems with this argument. Notifying authorities and waiting for authorities to get either a warrant or permission to enter the premises gives the wrongdoers a chance to cover up the problem. Cruel practices that are legal will likely not be reported or exposed. Also, employees won't report themselves to authorities and might be hesitant to report their co-workers and supervisors.
However, if the farms treated the animals better, they wouldn't have to worry about undercover videos. Matt Rice of Mercy for Animals points out:
Legislation should focus on strengthening animal cruelty laws, not prosecuting those who blow the whistle on animal abuse… If producers truly cared about animal welfare, they would offer incentives to whistleblowers, install cameras at these facilities to expose and prevent animal abuse, and they would work to strengthen animal abuse laws to prevent animals from needless suffering.
Paul Shapiro, senior director of farm animal protection for The HSUS, states, "These draconian bills to silence whistle-blowers show just how far the animal agribusiness industry is willing to go, and just how much the industry has to hide."
Undercover videos are important not just for educating the public, but also because they can be used as evidence in animal cruelty cases. According to Katerina Lorenzatos Makris of Examiner.com, "Castro County DA James R. Horton said that without the footage from Mercy for Animals (MFA) 'we wouldn't have anything' in terms of evidence against the suspects in the beating deaths of dairy calves at E6 Cattle Co. in Hart, Texas." In West Virginia in 2009, three employees at Aviagen Turkeys were charged with felony animal cruelty as a result of an undercover video by PETA.
While some members of the public will demand animal welfare reforms after seeing factory farming videos, animal rights are about whether humans have a right to use non-human animals for our purposes, regardless of how well the animals are treated.