Factory farm operators believe that the less Americans know about what goes on behind their closed doors, the better for the industry. That’s because the animals sent through those factories often endure an unimaginable amount of mistreatment and abuse.
Cows too sick to walk are dragged by the neck across cement floors. Pigs are stabbed and beaten with sledgehammers. Chickens are thrown against walls and stomped to death. And accepted industry practices, like confining animals in impossibly small cages, are just as brutal.
Nearly always, this treatment comes to light only because courageous employees — or those posing as employees — take undercover video and release it to the public. The industry should welcome such scrutiny as a way to expose the worst operators. Instead, the industry’s lobbyists have taken the opposite approach, pushing for the passage of so-called “ag-gag” laws, which ban undercover recordings on farms and in slaughterhouses. These measures have failed in many states, but they have been enacted in eight. None has gone as far as North Carolina, where a new law that took effect Jan. 1 aims to silence whistle-blowers not just at agricultural facilities, but at all workplaces in the state. That includes, among others, nursing homes, day care centers, and veterans’ facilities.
Anyone who violates the law — say, by secretly taping abuses of elderly patients or farm animals and then sharing the recording with the media or an advocacy group — can be sued by business owners for bad publicity and be required to pay a fine of $5,000 for each day that person is gathering information or recording without authorization.
The law originally singled out factory-farm exposés, but after it twice failed to pass in the face of resistance from animal-rights activists, lawmakers succeeded in pushing through a version that covered everyone equally. Gov. Pat McCrory, who said he was concerned the law would make it harder for employees to report illegal activity, vetoed the measure, but the state’s legislature, the General Assembly, overrode the veto last June.
The law exempts those who report abuses directly to their bosses or state authorities, but its intended effect is to shut down a very effective means of getting important information to the public. As one of its sponsors told a Senate committee last year, the whole point is to stop people who would go “running out to a news outlet.”
This is a clear violation of the constitutional freedoms of speech and the press, as a coalition of animal-welfare, consumer protection and good-government groups argued in a federal lawsuit filed in January.
They have precedent to back them up, in the form of a decision by a federal judge last August that struck down an ag-gag law in Idaho on free-speech grounds, the first such ruling in the country. Activists who pose as employees to gain access to farming operations, the judge wrote, “actually advance core First Amendment values by exposing misconduct to the public eye and facilitating dialogue on issues of considerable public interest.”
As far back as the publication of “The Jungle,” which documented the horrific conditions inside Chicago meatpacking plants in the early 20th century, the public has relied on journalists and activists to expose dangerous abuses and misconduct by businesses.
The outcry that follows revelations about factory farms has led to important policy changes, like California’s 2008 initiative banning some of the worst kinds of intensive confinement of farm animals. The secrecy promoted by ag-gag laws should have no place in American society.
A version of this editorial appears in print on February 1, 2016, on page A20 of the New York edition with the headline: No More Exposés in North Carolina.