Saturday, March 7, 2020

Ag Gag Laws Continue to Spread Across the US—and Now They’ve Come to Canada

In many areas of the world trespassing is a relatively minor offence under the law, and offenders are liable to relatively minor punishments. The maximum fine for a first offence in the province of Alberta, for example, was until recently $2,000; for a second offence the maximum was $10,000. (Penalties for trespassing are typically the same regardless of whether the premises are a private individual’s home and yard, a business owner’s warehouse and parking lot, or a farmer’s fields and farm buildings.)

But under the provisions of a bill rushed through the Alberta legislature by Premier Jason Kenney’s Conservative government late last year, an individual in that province who has been found guilty of trespassing is now subject to a fine of up to $10,000 for a first offence—plus six months in jail. A second offence is now subject to a fine of up to $25,000, plus a further six months in jail. An organization involved in sponsoring or directing an act of trespass is subject to a fine of up to $200,000. If one is deemed to have gained access under “false pretenses” (for example, by falsely saying as you start a job at a pig farm that you have no intention of taking photographs of any animals being abused), one is subject to the same penalties.

Why prescribe such harsh punishments for such a minor offence? The key is in another part of the bill, where it is specified that such penalties apply even when property is not fenced off and no notices forbidding trespassing have been posted—if the offence occurs on farmland or “on land that is used for the raising of and maintenance of animals.”

Alberta’s Bill 27 is legislation of a sort familiar to many Americans as “ag gag” legislation—legislation intended to gag those who would inform the general public of what goes on behind the closed doors of the agricultural operations where the 10 billion or so mammals and birds killed every year in North America for human food live out their brief, unhappy lives.

As in many other North American jurisdictions, such operations in Alberta are in practice exempt from almost all provisions of animal cruelty legislation. Typically, such legislation prohibits only the causing of “unnecessary” pain, suffering or injury to an animal, and in many jurisdictions any practice is allowed if it can be classed as part of “generally accepted” practices of animal management or animal husbandry. Given that those have for decades included such practices as confining sows in crates so small that the animals can never turn around, and confining egg-laying hens to cages in which they each have no more than 67 square inches of living space, a phrase such as “generally accepted practices” leaves a lot of room for cruelty. But not enough room to satisfy the animal agriculture lobby. Over the past decade and more, undercover operations at animal agriculture facilities across North America have revealed horrific examples both of what constitutes “generally accepted practice” and of abuses that exceed anything that could possibly be described as “necessary cruelty” or “generally accepted practice.” As Camille Labchuk, executive director of the organization Animal Justice, has pointed out, “whistleblowing employees are often the only way the public has to monitor the conditions animals endure on modern farms.”

Alberta is not the only province that has moved to criminalize such whistleblowing; in the province of Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s Conservative government has just introduced similar legislation. In doing so, the two provinces are following in the footsteps of the many American states that have passed such legislation (in three of which the legislation has been ruled unconstitutional—legal battles continue elsewhere).

At stake is not only the treatment of non-human animals, important though that is; it is also freedom of speech. A society in which whistleblowers are prevented from drawing the attention of the public to horrific abuses is a society that gives license to the powerful to do anything they please.

But surely, many may say, property owners have a right to do as they please on their own property; should we not do everything we can to protect that right? Perhaps the best response to such arguments is to imagine a situation in which those being abused are not calves and piglets and chicks but puppies and kittens—or human children. In any such scenario it becomes clear that we instinctively feel private property rights to be far outweighed by those of the general public. The public in such cases has a right to know—and the public has as well a responsibility to do everything possible to stop the abuse. (That’s particularly the case given that agricultural operations enjoy the benefits of considerable government subsidies in almost every North American jurisdiction.) Yet Governments in Alberta and Ontario—just like governments in many American states—are doing everything possible to keep the public from knowing what’s going on—and nothing whatsoever to stop the cruelty.

Animal activist and free speech groups are likely to challenge the constitutionality of the Canadian laws, just as such legislation has been challenged in America. But it is hard to keep up; though the issue receives little coverage in the mainstream media, in America the problem has been getting worse rather than better. Ag gag laws have been attempted in a total of 28 states; they have now become law in a total of at least 11. Even in Iowa, where the state ag gag law was ruled unconstitutional in January 2019, the legislature within two months managed to pass a new ag gag bill. And in some states with ag gag laws—notably, North Carolina—the legislation is worded so broadly as to deter whistleblowing in almost any industry in almost any context.

Today’s media give a good deal of attention to alleged threats to freedom of speech coming from progressives on university campuses; it is time more attention was paid to these far more serious threats to freedom of speech that are coming from industry and from government.

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