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What Are 'Ag Gag' Laws?

By Brett Snider, Esq. on March 23, 2014 1:12 PM

So-called "ag gag" laws have allowed some states to muzzle animal rights activists, barring them from taking pictures or videos at livestock facilities.

But many of these laws are being challenged in court. In the latest challenge, the American Civil Liberties Union is fighting back against Idaho's "ag gag" law, citing illegal constraints on First Amendment rights, Reuters reports.

So what are "ag gag" laws?

Agriculture Anti-Whistleblower Laws

The term "ag gag" is short for two things: agriculture and gag order. A gag order makes it illegal to speak or report about a certain topic. They're often issued by courts in order to ensure that criminal defendants receive a fair and unbiased trial.

In this case, the "gag" part of "ag gag" laws refers to a category of anti-whistleblower laws that relate to animal abuse in the agriculture industry. According to the Humane Society of the United States, these laws have the effect of blocking advocates "from exposing animal cruelty, food-safety issues, [and] poor working conditions" in factory farms.

These "ag gag" laws can take many forms, but they tend to criminalize:

  • Taking photos or video of agricultural facilities without permission,
  • Applying for an agriculture job under false pretenses, and
  • Failing to report animal abuses to law enforcement.

It may seem perfectly reasonable for states to punish those who silently assent to animal abuse at factory farms. But opponents note that these laws have more often been used to target and prosecute undercover investigators -- those seeking to end animal abuse.

Current 'Ag Gag' Suits

Idaho passed an "ag gag" law last month, making it a misdemeanor to interfere with agricultural production. This includes recording or photographing factory farms without permission as well as obtaining a job for the purpose of doing economic damage to an agriculture business.

A complaint filed by the ACLU on behalf of various animal rights groups complains that the statute violates the First Amendment by unconstitutionally hampering free speech. A similar lawsuit was filed by law professors who believe Utah's "ag gag" law is unconstitutional, reports Food Safety News.

There are currently seven states with "ag gag" laws, and all seem to be potentially vulnerable to free speech challenges that the laws are overbroad. Laws which effectively burden speech without a compelling government interest may be struck down as invalid under the First Amendment, which is what "ag gag" opponents are hoping for.

Currently, however, there is no binding precedent for striking down an "ag gag" law.

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