Can Private Drones be Used to Counter “Ag-Gag” Laws in 7 States?

Tuesday, July 22, 2014
(photo: Will Porter)

An investigative journalist has decided that if state laws prevent him from documenting evidence of wrongdoing inside factory farms, he’ll take to the air to see what’s going on.

Using the online fundraising website Kickstarter, journalist Will Potter managed to raise $75,000 to purchase multiple drones for aerial surveillance of large livestock facilities.


Potter told NPR’s The Salt that the move was necessary since seven states have adopted “ag-gag” bills that outlaw the collecting of images inside such operations that reveal neglect or abuse.


“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 these aerial photographs and satellite imagery of farm pollution, of waste lagoons, of sprawling industrial operations.”


Potter says that with the images he gets from the drone, he’ll create a documentary about ag-gag laws and factory farming and publish an e-book.


Industry officials were not pleased to learn of Potter’s drone plans, which some say will be used by animal rights activists to further taint corporate-owned farms. One spokeswoman even took a shot at Potter’s campaign rather than attempt to defend the abuse that often happens on such farms. “It’s even more unfortunate that people contribute to campaigns like this on Kickstarter instead of investing in any of the other myriad of worthy causes—including working to end hunger,” said Emily Meredith of the Animal Agriculture Alliance.


Still others have made veiled threats to shoot down the drones if they’re spotted near agricultural operations. “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,” Chuck Jolley, a meat industry veteran, told Harvest Public Media.


Whether Potter will get away with running his Anti-Ag-Gag Air Force is another question. Clemens Kochinke, an attorney who writes the Drone Law blog, says the law is unclear about monitoring agricultural operations and whether Potter’s First Amendment rights might trump other concerns.


Potter isn’t the first animal-rights activist to take to the air. PETA has launched drones to “stalk” hunters suspected of illegal activities.

-Noel Brinkerhoff, Steve Straehley


To Learn More:

Deploying Drones to Get an Overview of Factory Farms (by Peggy Lowe, National Public Radio)

Drone on the Farm: An Aerial Exposé (Kickstarter)

Idaho Bill Criminalizing Videotaping of Agricultural Operations Targets Opponents of Animal Abuse (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

Animal Rights Groups Sue Utah over Law Criminalizing Undercover Photography of Farm Abuse (by Matt Bewig, AllGov)


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