In the past few years, legislators have proposed farm protection legislation, with the intention of putting a dent in activists’ ability to break the law. These farm protection bills however have been given a powerful label by those who oppose them – they are referred to by opponents as “ag-gag” laws, and I’m really concerned to see that some of us involved in the livestock/farming industries have adopted the term as well.
As members of the farming community who know that these bills are in place to protect our fundamental rights to private property, we know this legislation is important. What is more important, however, is that activists claim this legislation intrudes on their right to free speech- and mistakenly- we are buying into it.
It is dangerous for us to use the “ag gag” term ourselves. When we do, we give activists’ distorted version of reality more credibility. This post explains very simply why that is: primarily, the laws have nothing to do with gagging any speech whatsoever! By taking their label and using it ourselves, we validate a notion that is purely fictional.
THERE’S LIES, MORE LIES, AND THEN THERE’S “AG-GAG” LABELS
Let me be clear- the laws in question here do not “gag” anything.
This false label is applied to the bills by activists to make it appear as if these laws actually violate one of America’s most important fundamental rights… the freedom of speech. Activists argue that these laws infringe upon their right to speech because they prevent them from filming instances of “animal mistreatment.” They claim that the drive behind opposing these laws is for the betterment of the perceived “animal mistreatment” on farms.
Activists never mention, however, their equally expressive opposition to bills that require all undercover videos to be turned into authorities in less than 48 hours. This requirement serves to ensure that the issues the photos and films recorded could be dealt with swiftly.
This addition to farm protection bills was not good enough for the activists- why? The answer is simple: the production of these videos is a strategic art that has less to do with actually helping animals and more to do with promoting an agenda that will make them millions. Fighting “the good fight” against “abuse of animals” on “factory farms” gives activist groups meaning; something to fight for; something to rally support; people’s hard earned money for; it has nothing to do with reality or with the way animals are really treated by farmers. If the goal was sincere- every activist would be behind farm protection bills that require evidence of abuse to be reported within 48 hours.
FARM PROTECTION BILLS HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH SPEECH
What do farm protection laws say? Here is a brief outline of Wyoming Senate Bill 12.
The bill says: AN ACT relating to crimes and offenses; creating the crimes of trespassing to unlawfully collect resource data and unlawful collection of resource data; limiting use of unlawfully collected data.
In sum, the bill works to make it a crime for anyone to trespass on to a farm or private property to collect information. Where’s the speech limitation? The answer: there is none.
The right to protect one’s private property has been of fundamental importance long before America was established in 1776. Philosophers such as John Locke and Thomas Hobbes established that private property and protection of that property is among the most important, if not most important right of individuals.
These farm protection bills have one main goal: they PROTECT the private property of farmers on their own farms where they live with their families. There is nothing inherently different in these farm protection laws than those outlawing criminals from breaking into your house and stealing your belongings or taking pictures of your home so that they can break in again and again.
EVEN IF THERE WAS A QUESTION ABOUT SPEECH: YOU CAN’T EXERCISE RIGHTS BY BREAKING THE LAW
What farm protection legislation does is prevent individuals, who believe that they can transcend the laws of this nation, from breaking the law.
Activists argue that the prevention of going on to private property without consent of the owner to film or take pictures violates freedom of speech. The speech component that they have conjugated together however is not speech. The act of taking pictures and/ or recording videos alone is not speech. How do I know? The highest Court in America, The Supreme Court, has spent decades defining what the First Amendment’s Right to Free Speech means.
The First Amendment protects me writing this blog post. It also protects the speech of an individual commenting on this post agreeing with me or disagreeing with me. The Supreme Court has never ruled that documenting events on film or taking pictures is protected under the First Amendment’s free speech clause. Further, the Supreme Court has NEVER affirmed the right of an individual’s Constitutional protection to break the law to exercise what they thought was speech.
The iconic example of this comes from the Supreme Court’s ruling in United States v. O’Brien. Mr. O’Brien, in protest of the Vietnam War, stood on the steps of his local courthouse and publically burned his draft card. He was convicted of violating a federal law that prohibited damaging or destroying the government-issued draft cards. O’Brien appealed to the Supreme Court arguing that his public burning of his draft card was an example of symbolic speech and that the federal law prohibiting him from doing that was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court ruled that the law was not unconstitutional because the law’s application served an important interest in holding a record of all individuals who were on the draft list. Further, the Court ruled that O’Brien’s speech could have been conducted in a way that did not break the law. There’s an idea…
BAD LAWS THAT INFRINGE ON RIGHTS CAN BE REVERSED?: NOT WHEN AN UNCONSTITUTIONAL LAW IS ABSENT
Activists may try to argue that farm protection laws should be overturned because they are unconstitutional. Plain and simple: you cannot overturn a fundamental right. Plain and simple: as farmers and agricultural professionals, we need to stop giving activists the power by endorsing their label of “ag-gag” when the laws do not gag anything, not a single right, not a single act of speech. In America, there are protections and laws to enforce those protections. Farmers and their families have a right to their property. They feed our world and deserve every right guaranteed to them to do so.