Ag Gag Laws: Violating Freedom of the Press and Limiting Consumer Access to Information

Multiple states have passed what are known as ‘ag gag’ laws, designed to penalise investigative reporters who explore conditions on industrial agriculture operations. Many of these laws focus specifically on livestock, in the wake of numerous exposes on the abuses of livestock in industrial agriculture. These laws are a significant threat to the freedom of the press, and it’s rather remarkable that they’re being allowed to stand. More than that, they threaten the health and safety of consumers, in addition to making it difficult and sometimes impossible for consumers to make educated choices about the sources of their food.

The United States should be in an uproar about ag gag laws, and it’s not. That’s a telling reflection of attitudes about agriculture, and illustrates the lack of interest among many people in the US about journalism and how it functions, and the purpose of investigative journalism in particular. Attempts to raise awareness about the issue are often met with indifference; they are not as interesting and seductive as celebrity scandals, evidently, even though they are far more scandalous, and impact people’s lives more immediately and directly.

It should come as no surprise to learn that the source of the pressure behind ag gag laws is, of course, industrial agriculture. Big firms have pushed legislators heavily to pass laws limiting the freedom to report on conditions at livestock facilities, including ranches, feedlots, and slaughterhouses. With the benefit of lobbyists, they can exert pressure directly in the halls of the legislature, as well as doing so indirectly by contributing to the electoral process and deciding who gets elected. In states like Iowa, you have to be agriculture-friendly to get elected, and if you want a chance at beating the competition, you’d better be willing to toe the line on industrial agriculture so you’ll get the needed support.

Several techniques are used in ag gag laws in an attempt to restrict the ability to report on livestock operations. One option has been quite direct, with an attempt to ban the distribution of photos and videos taken on farms without consent of the owner. These attempts have been smacked down on the grounds that they violate first amendment rights. Taking a new angle, lobbyists have pushed for legislation that makes lying on job applications related to agricultural work a criminal offense. A journalist taking an undercover job, in other words, could be convicted of a crime.

Many people are not aware of the entirely legal animal abuse in industrial agriculture, which is one thing journalists can expose; treatment that appears horrific, wrong, and abusive is actually quite legal in many states. In other cases, journalists can expose abuses that actually are illegal, spurring both public outrage and investigation. These kinds of exposes are important, because people should know about the source of their food, and they should be aware of the high price they pay for cheap meat.

It’s not just about animal welfare; industrial agriculture also trashes the environment, something that should be of grave concern even to people who aren’t concerned about the health and well-being of animals raised for food. Industrial farms contribute to air, water, and soil pollution, consume vast volumes of water, and destroy soil biology and animal habitat, because the goal is to produce as much food as possible as quickly as possible. In this setting, environmental health is not a significant concern; but investigative journalism could force action on the subject, pressuring legislators to clamp down on environmental protection and force industrial agriculture to clean up its act.

Furthermore, worker abuses are also a significant concern in industrial agriculture. Slaughterhouses are one of the most dangerous working environments in the US, and they are staffed predominantly by immigrants, documented and undocumented, making minimum wage or close to it. The work is hard and fast, which means that people are prone to injury, and in a high-speed production line, there is limited time to address workplace injuries. Severe disabilities are not uncommon, and in the case of undocumented workers, there are few resources when it comes to dealing with disability and seeking compensation when such injuries are clearly the result of dangerous working conditions.

This is why investigative journalism is important: Because it brings these kinds of abuses to light and confronts consumers with information about the facts behind their food. Journalists in a wide range of industries and environments spend months or years on research, often from the inside, to prepare stories intended to spark comment, discussion, and change. Ag gag laws are only one example of an attempt to limit the ability to report freely on pressing social issues, and they should be a subject of anger and horror in the population at large. Lobbyists are attempting to limit access to information, and they are doing so by limiting the abilities of journalists to do their jobs.

The anger about exposes is well-founded; consumers are usually horrified when they see images and video from livestock facilities, as well they should be. Dead and dying animals packed close together in unhealthy, dangerous conditions, some with open sores and other obvious health problems. Animals treated casually and abusively by staff members who need to work fast, and cannot afford compassion or gentleness. Horrific conditions in slaughterhouses, where terrified animals are rushed through the production line and subjected to utterly inhumane and dangerous conditions. Workers who are tired, working through overtime, obviously ill, and at high risk of injury from their work environment.

That the reaction to exposes is to silence journalists, rather than addressing the poor conditions, is an inevitable consequence of capitalism. It is more cost effective to shut off the stories, rather to fix the problem, and legislators are evidently happy to go along with this plan, passing ag gag laws to ensure silence about the continued abuse of farm animals. Consumers, in turn, tolerate this because they have no idea about the nature of the news they can’t see.