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Activists Aim to Skirt 'Ag Gag' Laws with Drones

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Using unmanned aerial vehicles is a controversial practice, whether to scout farmland or to skirt laws outlawing the filming of farms.

An independent journalist says he’s found a way around the so-called “ag-gag” laws – flying drones over large livestock operations to document animal welfare problems and pollution.

Will Potter, a Washington D.C.-based environmental blogger, raised $75,000 on Kickstarter to buy drones and other equipment to do investigative work tracking animal abuse and pollution problems on large livestock operations.

Potter sees the effort as a way to circumvent regulations in at least seven states that outlaw undercover whistleblowers who work in concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs. Called “ag-gag” by critics and passed after several high-profile cases, the laws make it illegal for anyone to videotape or record on the farms.

While lauded in a few national stories, reaction to Potter’s plan in farm country has ranged from outright anger, invitations to visit the farms, and warnings about the drones becoming target practice.

Emily Meredith, a spokeswoman for the Animal Ag Alliance, a coalition of farm and commodity groups, defended the laws, saying they act as a deterrent to the activists – who she calls the “detractor community.”

The activists use deceptive practices to spread misinformation, Meredith said, who is also critical of the term “ag gag.”

“I think that the farm protection legislation and different bills that have been introduced (are) trying to give farmers who have been victimized by these groups some sort of recourse, some sort of protection against their deceptive tactics,” she said.

In an interview, Potter said he will focus on the anti-whistleblower laws, going to states where they are being debated. He promises he will air his findings in an e-book and a short documentary.

Potter said he’s not attempting to get footage comparable to that obtained through undercover investigations by groups like Mercy for Animals and the Humane Society.

“I was primarily motivated by what’s happening outside of those closed doors, but is still invisible and hidden from the public spotlight,” he said. “In particular I was motivated by seeing theseaerial photographs and satellite imagery of farm pollution, of waste lagoons, of sprawling industrial operations.”

Chuck Jolley, a meat industry veteran and president of the Meat Industry Hall of Farm, took a light touch to the topic in a beef magazine.

“Those things better not be coming over during duck season because there are hunters out there that might look up and mistake that drone for a duck,” he wrote.

Jolley, based in Kansas City, is highly critical of the ag-gag laws and believes that farmers and ranchers should open their doors to anyone who wants to see their operations. Jolley’s not alone – Temple Grandin, the animal scientist who was the subject of a popular HBO biopic, has urged placing video cameras in slaughterhouses and livestreaming  the production lines.

“What you’re really doing is handing an issue to the anti-ag people and saying, ‘Yeah, I’ve got something to hide and I’ve got laws to protect me,’” Jolley said.

Angry commenters on Jolley’s piece called the animal rights activists “terrorists” and “zealots” who don’t understand agriculture and who edit the videos to maximum effect.

“Let them fly their drones,” Pat commented on Jolley’s piece. “Who cares, as long as we have some effective means of prosecuting them for illegal trespass, invasion of privacy or harassment?”

Whether those flying the drones could be prosecuted is still a legal question. Clemens Kochinke, a Washington D.C.-based lawyer who authors the blog “Drone Law,” said the law is unclear about monitoring ag businesses and it takes years to test the laws in court.

“Aside from the many federal issues involving the FAA and Homeland Security, you have the state, county and municipal rules,” he said. “An overriding limitation on the restriction of drones may derive from the First Amendment where reporting in the public interest is concerned.”


More: More states considering ‘ag-gag’ laws