Last week the Agricultural transparency project filed a complaint to challenge the Surveillance Devices Act 2007 (SDA), a New South Wales law that restricts the use of cameras and audio recorders in private premises. If the offer is successful, it will be the first time that Australia’s so-called “ag-gag” legislation will be challenged in the High Court.
Animal advocacy groups Claim laws like the SDA are increasingly silencing those who advocate for greater transparency around industries that use animals.
Meanwhile, organizations representing animal use industries, such as the National Farmers Federation, say the secret images represent a “huge invasion of privacy”.
Balancing the interests of animal rights groups and industries using animals will not be easy. However, the way out of this impasse is not to silence animal rights groups. Instead, it’s about making their actions unnecessary by providing meaningful transparency in the industry.
What are the ag-gag laws?
“Ag-gagDescribes laws that can be used to target animal rights activists and whistleblowers highlighting the operations of commercial animal use industries, particularly intensive factory farms.
The United States was the first country to pass ag-gag legislation, with a Kansas law in 1990 criminalizing the act of taking illegal photos or films in pet stores. Since then, ag-gag legislation has been introduced in most US states, and is in effect in several states.
But since 2013, pressure from animal rights groups has seen courts in a handful of US states. repeal ag-gag laws as an unconstitutional attack on freedom of expression under the First Amendment.
Animal welfare activists have campaigned from the streets to the High Court. Photo: Shutterstock
Australia has followed the trend by reorienting existing laws (such as the SDA) into ag-gag laws, or passing new explicitly anti-animal laws.
The latter includes the Bill on the right to agriculture 2019 in New South Wales, which introduced severe penalties for trespassing on farmland, and the Criminal Code Amendment (Agricultural Protection) Act 2019 at the federal level, which creates an offense of using, for example, a telephone or the Internet to entice others to enter agricultural land.
What are the activists saying?
The first Australian animal activist to be charged under Australia’s ag-gag law – in this case the SDA – was Chris Delforce, the executive director of the Farm Transparency Project.
Before a court in New South Wales dismissed the charges, Delforce faced a maximum of five years in prison for allegedly posting footage allegedly taken at intensive pigsties and slaughterhouses in NSW.
Unlike the United States, the Australian constitution does not have an explicit right to freedom of expression. In 1992, however, the High Court recognized that the constitution contains a “implicit freedom”To discuss political issues.
After another High Court case in 2001, this implicit freedom of political communication has been recognized as extending to animal welfare issues.
In the High Court’s current offer, the Farm Transparency Project argues that the NSW law represents an unreasonable restriction on the implicit freedom of political communication.
According to the group, the SDA unduly restricts this implied freedom because, unlike similar laws in other Australian jurisdictions, NSW does not exempt material published in the public interest.
Failures in animal welfare regulations
It could be argued that even though animal rights groups try to bring cases of animal abuse to light, they are not in a good position to do so. After all, the animal industries are already under the scrutiny of the police and the RSPCA, bodies tasked with ensuring compliance with and prosecuting violations of animal welfare standards.
But, as Australians have seen in recent years, this regulatory framework does not always work so well in practice.
The recent scandals surrounding the mistreatment of animals in the live export, greyhound racing, and horses race industries were not discovered during standard compliance processes. Instead, it took secret footage to capture evidence of abuse.
Given the failings of Australia’s animal welfare regulatory and compliance systems, advocacy groups clearly play a role crucial and neglected role by exposing systemic animal abuse, both legal and otherwise, across a range of industries.
What do they have to hide?
Lawyers’ goal of protecting the implicit freedom of political communication is not the only interest at stake in the High Court’s candidacy.
Take for example the biggest beef booster in the history of the United States, which occurred in 2008. Images obtained secretly by an animal rights group revealed that cows too sick to walk were being slaughtered, with some of the meat being sold for use in school meal programs.
In light of these revelations of food safety violations at animal processing facilities, consumers have a vested interest in having access to information on how their meat, dairy products and eggs are produced.
On the other hand, those who work in pet stores also have an interest in ensuring that their privacy is not violated by activists or whistleblowers collecting images.
Advocacy groups play a crucial and overlooked role in exposing systemic animal abuse. Photo: Shutterstock
But you have to differentiate between the privacy of an individual and that of a company.
Many farmers live and work on their properties. However, there is no evidence to suggest that animal rights groups are filming or recording footage of private homes instead of animal processing operations.
In the 2001 High Court case, most judges agreed that businesses had no right to privacy. Instead, they saw privacy as something associated with the notion of human dignity. By filming their business operations, the human dignity of farmers or workers is undoubtedly not infringed.
Ultimately, these activists are fill a regulatory void. Putting barriers between consumers and animal use industries by criminalizing the actions of activists will not foster confidence in these industries.
As Paul McCartney once said, “If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be vegetarian.” Not prioritizing transparency will reinforce the idea that these industries have something to hide.
Rather than trying to silence groups like the Farm Transparency Project with laws like the SDA, animal use industries should respond by developing and enforcing strict transparency and compliance standards.
Only this will show that they have nothing to hide.