Several states have enacted so-called “ag-gag” laws. Although these laws vary across states, they generally forbid anyone from taking photos or recording video of agricultural activities on private property without express consent. These laws were enacted to stop environmental and animal rights activists from documenting and exposing pollution, animal abuse, and other disturbing activities. The most recent challenge to one of these laws was heard by a Utah federal court last week.
Although these laws are promoted as merely protecting property rights from trespass, many are a thinly veiled content-based restriction on free speech, with adverse environmental consequences to boot. The original version of Wyoming’s ag-gag law awarded damages to the property owner based on the harm done by the resulting speech, not the impact of the speaker’s trespass. So if, for instance, the property owner was flagrantly abusing his animals, an activists exposing her bad actions would be punished more because of the severity of the farmer’s bad actions. A federal judge correctly, in my view, recognized that this provision “appears to identify a desire to suppress particular content or viewpoint of speech.”
I’m sympathetic to the property owners’ underlying concern. Today’s environmental laws lead to unnecessary conflict and occasional harassment of those subject to them, including many farmers. But ag-gag laws are a greater threat than the underlying problem they’re meant to address. They directly harm the environment by penalizing activists based on the significance of environmental harm they uncover. And they restrict liberty in violation of the First Amendment.