In the century since Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, journalists and activists alike have incited political change by exposing injustice and negligence — a trend that could be threatened by new legislation in six states.
Nebraska, Indiana, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and California are all currently looking to ban or limit the use of hidden cameras by non-law enforcement groups (including animal rights activists) on agricultural facilities. These six states are part of a larger group of nine states that have proposed similar legislation in the past year. There are currently five states that already have such legislation on the books.
Indiana bill author Sen. Travis Holdman said that agriculture investigations should be left to police and regulatory agencies, a system that could be undermined by activists.
“We don’t need a vigilante group out there with cameras and video cameras taking pictures of things that we just don’t like,” Holman said.
In recent years, animal rights groups have used hidden camera footage to stir public outrage over the living conditions of animals on “factory farms.” An ABC investigative report used such footage taken by a Mercy for Animals activist that had infiltrated a commercial egg supplier, Sparboe Farms, out of Iowa. The resulting footage led to McDonald’s and Target both canceling their contracts with Sparboe.
“Without undercover investigations, there are oftentimes no effective watchdogs protecting animals from egregious cruelty in these facilities,” said Nathan Runkle, executive director of Mercy for Animals.
The so-called “ag gag” legislation has varying consequences from state to state, with Arkansas’s proposed bill offering the harshest penalties; it looks to make it a crime for anyone other than law enforcement agents to investigate or collect evidence of animal cruelty.
Animals rights groups claim that the proposed legislation is meant to shield agribusiness from public scrutiny and allow law enforcement to turn a blind eye to abuse.
“By signing this bill into law, animal agribusiness will have unbridled and unchecked power over worker safety, public health and animal welfare,” said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States.
While animal cruelty is a major activist focus, many others cite these questionable conditions as a public health powderkeg. A separate ABC investigative report from 2012 focused on one woman’s struggle since being infected with Salmonella after eating tainted eggs from a factory farm.
Farm advocacy groups, including the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), have fired back, claiming that animal rights groups have not only staged some of the footage, but that they’re also attempting to convert meat-eaters to a vegan lifestyle.
“You can look on some of those web sites, and see that some [animal rights groups] do claim to want to end the use of animals for food,” said Kelli Ledlum of the AFBF.
Whatever the motivation is on either side, this legislation can be looked at as a loss for civil libertarians. On one hand, it’s a blow to a free press, which has enjoyed a level of freedom to expose injustice for centuries. On the other hand, if hidden cameras are allowed to continue to be used, landowners won’t enjoy privacy on their own property.