Free Speech

How 'Ag-Gag' Laws Stifle Free Speech

The government shouldn't pass special laws that prevent people from revealing what's true.


Recording events from public land shouldn't be a crime.

Yet when a woman in Utah, standing by a public road, filmed farmworkers pushing a cow with a bulldozer, the farmer drove up to her and said, "You cannot videotape my property."

Soon the police came and local prosecutors charged her with "agricultural operation interference."

They dropped the charges several months later since she was on public land.

But what if she'd posed as a farmworker, got a job on the farm, and then secretly recorded what she saw?

Increasingly, activists do that. More than 100 such undercover investigations have been done.

They then distribute video that sometimes shows animals being cruelly abused. In my video this week, we see calves being hit, kicked, and thrown.

Farmers, upset about such recordings, are now asking politicians to outlaw them, and several state legislatures have obliged. They've passed "ag-gag" laws—bans on sneaking onto farms to secretly record what they see.

Kay Johnson Smith of the Animal Agriculture Alliance supports such laws, though she doesn't use the term "ag-gag."

"We call it 'farm protection,'" she told me. "Activists stalk farms to try to capture something that the public doesn't understand. The agricultural community is the only business where this sort of tactic is really being used."

Smith says the activists' real agenda is not just preventing cruelty to animals: "These activist groups want to eliminate all of animal agriculture."

I believe her. Many activists are animal rights extremists.

But I also worry that laws like ag-gag rules will stop people from revealing abuses. I'm an investigative reporter. I can't do my job well if laws prevent me from showing the abuse. Audiences often won't believe what I report if they can't see it for themselves.

Videos made by the group Mercy for Animals have led to criminal charges. Some of their investigations led Walmart to create new purchasing policies.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund claims ag-gag laws violate the First Amendment. They've succeeded in getting several states' ag-gag laws struck down.

When Iowa's law was ruled unconstitutional, legislators simply replaced it with a narrower law that forbids activists to lie to get access to farms.

The activists argue that because farms lie about their practices, the only way to reveal the truth is to lie to get onto farms.

Activists simply "want to ensure that the American public knows how these foods are processed, what happens to animals," says Animal Legal Defense Fund lawyer Amanda Howell.

"You've got tens of thousands of animals in warehouses standing on concrete floors never seeing the light of day…. If that affects people's purchasing decisions, then there's a reason for it," says Howell.

"They want to make their movie…their sensational video," retorts Smith. "If they really cared about animals, they would stop it right then! Instead, they go weeks and months without reporting anything to the farm owners."

That's often true.

Activists say long-term investigations are necessary because otherwise "a company can say this is a one-off," says Howell. Long-term investigations "show that's something that happens every day."

I took that argument to Smith.

"What they really want is to stop people from eating meat, milk and eggs," she said. "There are bad apples in every industry, (but) 99.9 percent of farmers in America, they do the right thing every single day. Farming isn't always pretty."

I asked Howell if she and her group do want to end all consumption of meat and eggs. It's funny watching her response on the video. She never gives a straight answer.

But her evasions bother me less than corporations using politicians to censor their critics.

Whatever you think of the activists—and I have problems with many of them—government shouldn't pass special laws that prevent people from revealing what's true.


NEXT: Peak Farmland Helps Solve Climate Change

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  1. What if an activist or reporter impersonated, say, a Farm Bureau representative, took a farmer to dinner (not on the farmer’s property), and elicited incriminating admissions about conditions on the farmer’s property?

    1. Then the farmer’s a damn fool for admitting anything of the sort to a gubmint representative.

      1. (The Farm Bureau is a private lobbying organization)

        1. Didn’t know that; same stupidity in admitting to known crimes to a stranger.

            1. Regardless, no one should ever be allowed to use any sort of dishonest means to expose one or another alleged version of the “truth.” That is precisely why the honorable judge who presided over our nation’s leading criminal “parody” case was obliged to make it clear, in one of the most important and definitive rulings of the past decade, that “neither good faith nor truth is a defense.” An illicit, unauthorized photograph is arguably even worse than a “parody” in this regard. See the documentation at:


    2. What in God’s name convinces Reason that total strangers should be able to come onto MY PROPERTY and film me or my property whether I like it or not?!!? If they want to film from the highway I suppose they have that right, but they have ZERO rights to come on my property and do as they wish. I won’t be renewing my Reason subscription as the writers as Reason seemed to have gone loco.

      1. That’s not what happened. The poorly-named “ag-gag” laws are in response to activists who applied for and got jobs at the farm, then used that access to take the videos.

        So, yes, they had a right to be on the property. And their right to film was limited to whatever employment contract they signed. Oh, the farmer didn’t have them sign an employment contract (because that creates all sorts of other legal liabilities)? From a legal perspective, too bad.

        1. So, they obtained access to the property under false pretenses and took video without permission.

          What I would like to know is, why isn’t that against the law in the first place? Why is an extra law necessary?

          It seems to me that, provided we aren’t talking about ridiculously punitive sentences, then this kind of guerrilla activism should have a price. If you feel strongly enough about your cause, then 90 days and a $100 fine should be just the price of fighting the good fight. While, OTOH, it would discourage the kind of Special Snowflake who disapproves of perfectly normal farm routine and thinks the hogs should get caviar in bed.

          You don’t have a right to film on someone else’s property without permission. I don’t really CARE how exalted your motives are. I don’t want to see you catch a years-long prison sentence or a crippling fine, but they should slap your wrist hard enough to sting.

          1. It’s not against the law because you invited them onto your property by hiring them. If you wanted restrictions on what your employees could do, that was your job to spell out (and enforce) as an employer. It’s not the government’s job to interfere with that employee-employer relationship. They already interfere in that relationship way too much.

            By the way, you do have the right to film on someone else’s property if a) you were invited onto the property, b) the invitation did not specifically forbid you from filming and c) the invitation has not been revoked.

            What I hear you really saying is that you want a law that people can’t do things generally “under false pretenses”. While I understand the appeal of that at stopping bad people, that is such a very general standard that it will either be so broad that it gives far too much power and potential for abuse or the standard will be narrowed to so many specific circumstances and situations that it becomes unmanageable and loophole-filled.

            1. I’m willing to bet that in many states you DO need specific permission to film, pursuant to rules about recording conversations. And that obtaining entry to private property by misrepresenting yourself taints the implied permission in a lot of others.

              I question the need for new laws.

              1. And I came here to comment that two-party consent recording laws need to go next. They are truly bullshit.

            2. doing what you are hired to do on that farm is almost certainly NOT taking video. In fact, I’d be suing the lying false premises employee for labour fraud.. getting hired to do This and That, and instead, doing Surveillance on the sly. WHilst he was recording he was NOT doing that for which he was hired, thus defrauded the employer. MY employment contract would specifically prohibit the creation of any documentatin, images, records, notes, accounts, in regards to anything seen or heard or otherwise observed on MY property on MY time.

      2. CGN-

        Amen, brother.

  2. So Stossel wants to hew ag-gag in pieces?

    (cf. 1 Samuel 15:33)

  3. Fraud violates the NAP.

    1. Yes.

      Now we get to the tricky bit.

      Objective vs subjective. The non-aggression principle depends upon an objective definition of “aggression”.

      There isn’t one. Just ask “words are violence, so lets throw punches for hate-speech” antifa.

      The NAP is a delightful argument. It also depends upon the aggressor realizing that he is the aggressor, which, like, never happens since everyone is convinced they’re the good guy reacting reasonably to someone [i]else’s[/i] aggression that has gone too far.

      There has been no human atrocity not attributed by its perpetrators as absolute necessity for the greater good. Name the more colorful bits of human history – every one justified by the perpetrators as needful to counter the “aggression” of some group.

      It’s a great thought, dude. It’s just not apparently a great thought that’s impervious to the adaptability of the human species. We’re fond of getting our opposable thumbs on a decent idea, and then taking it for a drunken joyride down the highway.

    2. No. Fraud itself is harmless. Obtaining something by fraud is theft, and all the fraud does is prove intent and buttress the theft case.

    3. seems okay to defend the cow.

  4. There’s a fine line between undercover investigative reporting and criminal trespass. If the line depends on intent and outcomes, it’s not a principle, it’s just special pleading. Of course, Stossel is a Journalist™, a high-ranking member of the priesthood to whom the laws that govern mere mortals do not apply, so he naturally thinks that laws that treat journalists the same as everybody else are specially problematic.

    “Freedom of the press” gives everybody the right to broadcast their message, it’s not an extra right creating a privileged caste of “real” reporters. Ask yourself, if I had a sexual kink where I really get off on seeing animals being abused, would I be in trouble for using false pretenses to gain access to the farm for the purposes of creating fetish porn videos? Why would I or a reporter be treated any differently?

    1. The 1A should fully empower all the press protection you need to “broadcast your message.” The 1A should also fully empower all the press protection the institutional media need to do what they do. What they do is a good deal more than what Joe Keyboard can do, so the institutional media need some specific protections beyond what Joe Keyboard needs.

      The enhanced protections needed for institutional media have mainly to do with news gathering, and especially news gathering of a sort Joe Keyboard is not equipped to accomplish, and cannot accomplish. In general, those protections have to do with confidentiality for sources, and freedom to collaborate in a news gathering enterprise without risking prosecution under theories which attack joint activity, such as conspiracy theories.

      A moment’s thought ought to quiet objections that 1A privileging of institutional news gathering amounts to disparagement of the rights of others. First, the others are free to act institutionally themselves, and then fully enjoy any institutional privilege. Second, the institutional press freedom thus promoted serves everyone, by providing publicly necessary information which would otherwise be unavailable.

  5. The fact is that we eat about as much meat as we always have. These animal rights activist are not really that big a problem for farmers. I think the farm support groups just give the activist more attention than they deserve. Stossel is right here. By the way if I was an animal rights activist I might focus on farm subsidies from the government and protest those. You could probably get a second article of support from Stossel.

    1. I’m not sure if my previous comment will ever escape moderation hell, but I disagree. They can do damage far in excess of their ability to remunerate. And…

      1. By revealing the truth?

    2. There’s no reason to assume such dishonest behavior is in any way limited to agriculture.

    3. These Lefties would never focus on farm subsidies because fundamentally, they are okay with government picking winners and losers and subsidizing crony business people.

      1. What are you talking about? When has the left ever supported sugar subsidies or ethanol? Even the support for farmers affected by tariffs is cutting big checks to corporate agriculture. I think your pulling this one right out of some cows behind. Actions which could be filmed by some Animal Rights Activist.

    4. Thinking about it, I begin to wonder if these proposed laws are intended to form a pretext for restraining orders. I recall a couple of cases in Northern Virginia that were reported while I was living in DC; farm owners caught some sort of activists trespassing in furtherance of some cause, and when they took it to court all kinds of other activists groups swarmed them.

      “Gee, your Honor, these twits are breaking a law that the legislature thought was so important an issue that they passed it specifically to protect us Farmers. Could you see your way clear to writing a general restraining order against their idiot friends?”

  6. Recording events from public land shouldn’t be a crime.

    Yet when a woman in Utah, standing by a public road, filmed farmworkers pushing a cow with a bulldozer, the farmer drove up to her and said, “You cannot videotape my property.”

    Soon the police came and local prosecutors charged her with “agricultural operation interference.”

    They dropped the charges several months later since she was on public land.

    But what if she’d posed as a farmworker, got a job on the farm, and then secretly recorded what she saw?

    Disingenuous bait-and-switch bullshit shouldn’t be your lead when trying to win people to your side or present yourself as the more morally upstanding side.

    Let me be perfectly clear; pushing what may be a live cow with a skid steer loader may or may not be animal cruelty. Starting off your story talking about filming from public land and a case that was dismissed and then blithely transitioning to lying to gain employment in order to capture abuse that may or may not be taking place is dishonest yellow journalism.

  7. “The activists argue that because farms lie about their practices, the only way to reveal the truth is to lie to get onto farms.”

    So, “we had to destroy the village in order to save it”?

    In other words, your lies are noble and important because then you think you can counter other peoples’ lies. Fuck off.

    1. Not a huge Project Veritas fan I take it?

      1. Not a huge Project Veritas fan I take it?

        Can’t distinguish between what is nominally an internet search company and a dairy farm I take it?

  8. >>>narrower law that forbids activists to lie to get access to farms

    wtf define “activist” “lie” and “access” stupid lawmakers. to perpetuate animal abuse too … shame.

  9. Big Ag stopping free speech?
    Isn’t that why we pay taxes?
    To stop all this “free speech” nonsense in the first place?

  10. Videos made by the group Mercy for Animals have led to criminal charges.

    THIS is a violation of the Fourth and Fifth Articles of Ammendment. Those two state what may not happen, and what must happen, and does not limit those things being violated to government activity. NO ONE may violate my right to be secure in my person, house, papers or effects. READ that Article of ammendment again then come back and tell me where Charlie wiht his Go Pro can violate MY security in those respects, OR where, in the Fifth, evidence gathered as these creeps gather can be used to coinvict in criminal court. Nowhere….

    HOW have we become a nationi of snitches and rats?

    The Animal Legal Defense Fund claims ag-gag laws violate the First Amendment. They’ve succeeded in getting several states’ ag-gag laws struck down.

  11. I’m genuinely interested as to if/when animals are recognized as being sentient individuals in law and how this affects their status purely as property. If “Big Ag” and their cronies in govt are the ones completely writing the rulebook for themselves then probably never. I’m mindful of the fact that simply exhibiting compassion does not automatically make someone into a screaming, fake blood-soaked crazy person animal rights terrorist, but I am also mindful of the fact that there may indeed arise an ethical/legal conflict between the basic assertions that any apparent compassion/concern for the welfare of animals is an attack on freedom/property rights (muh meat!) and the fact* that animals consciously experience pain, anxiety, etc.

    *this is where things get hung up because anyone can choose which scienticious opinions and research to quote on animal sentience, conciousness, nociception, etc, so there will always be one argument that says animals are not sentient/able to feel pain, or at least knows that the obverse cannot be proved definitively. It may hang on the burden of proof being flipped to proving that they cannot feel pain.

    Sure, animals die and get killed in gruesome and apparently painful ways all the time but that’s with the freedom to defend themselves or attempt escape in the wild, right? Intensively farmed** animals are just herded toward an inevitable slaughter in a bleak existence?

    **What is this “intensive” farming? Is it just animal rights propaganda?

    1. Animals in the wild die painful, gruesome deaths always. None of them die a peaceful death.

      However, in agriculture, animals are raised to be tasty, productive sources of food so harsh treatment is a bad business practice.

      Death in a slaughterhouse is fear-free and humane, especially compared to the death they would experience in a state of nature. Depending on the business, they might even subscribe to kosher law which even more strictly mandates how food-animals are slaughtered…

  12. Having worked in agriculture and having a client whose business is raising veal calves , I can tell you that the SMART business people treat their animals well. You want them to be healthy, happy and growing large. Animals are like people in that they flourish when fed and watered and housed properly and are free from physical abuse.

    They are little food (and material) factories that produce more output the better the are treated…

  13. The Constitution is simple, but it relies on citizen action to fulfill its commitments of individual freedom, particularly in the face of increasing resistance from sector and even government.


  14. […] they’re farming, don’t you be filming: John Stossel on ag-gag laws [Reason video and story, […]

  15. […] If they’re farming, don’t you be filming: John Stossel on ag-gag laws [Reason video and story,] […]

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