They call them "Ag-Gag" bills: state laws designed to prevent animal-rights groups from taking undercover video or photographs at farms to reveal inhumane treatment of livestock. About a dozen states have proposed or passed such laws in the last few years, according to a report from The New York Times. The worst of the laws even go so far as to label offenders as "terrorists."

The ag-gag bills are the livestock industry's response to a rash of undercover investigations conducted by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and other animal-rights organizations. One such video, shot last year at a Pennsylvania egg-laying facility by HSUS, showed live birds stuck between the wires of their cages, other dead or mummified birds lying in cages near live animals, and filth caked upon processing equipment. Another video, released last fall in the weeks before Thanksgiving, showed turkeys at four Butterball farms in North Carolina being abused and mishandled by workers. Other videos show workers punching and kicking pigs as well as burning the legs of horses.

According to the Times, many of the ag-gag bills currently being drafted around the country appear to be based on a model bill written by a group called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a business advocacy group whose website proclaims its support of limited government, free markets and federalism. ALEC did not respond to the Times' request to comment on their story.

The Center for Media and Democracy, through its website, says the "corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council" is used by "global corporations and state politicians [to] vote behind closed doors to try to rewrite state laws that govern your rights. These so-called 'model bills' reach into almost every area of American life and often directly benefit huge corporations."

One such model bill uncovered by the anti-ALEC website is called "The Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act" (pdf), which "creates penalties for persons encouraging, financing, assisting or engaged in ... acts of animal and ecological terrorism." (States have the option of adding the words "politically motivated" before the phrase "acts of animal and ecological terrorism.") The model bill is extremely far-reaching and would punish any person or organization that caused economic harm to an agricultural facility where animals are being raised for food, fur or fiber production, research, testing, education and other uses. Many opponents say the bill would unfairly punish whistle-blowers.

The people going undercover to shoot these videos would not be the only ones liable under the model law, which would also enable prosecution of anyone "participating in or supporting animal or ecological terrorism to include raising, soliciting, collecting or providing any person with material, financial support or other resources such as lodging, training, safe houses, false documentation or identification, communications, equipment or transportation that will be used in whole or in part, to encourage, plan, prepare, carry out, publicize, promote or aid an act of animal or ecological terrorism, the concealment of, or an escape from, an act of animal or ecological terrorism."

Vandhana Bala, general counsel for Mercy for Animals, one of the organizations which shot many of the undercover videos, told the Times that the laws have had "a chilling effect on our ability to conduct undercover investigations."

In an op-ed for the Times, Duke University law professor Jedediah Purdy responds to the ag-gag bills and says they would be unnecessary if the livestock industry behaved in a transparent manner. He suggests setting up webcams in feeding facilities and slaughterhouses so the public can check in at any point to make sure animals are being treated humanely.

Also on MNN:

New laws would punish those who shoot undercover video of livestock abuse
Videos from PETA and other organizations have helped to uncover animals living in unsafe and inhumane conditions. But a new law may prohibit the practice.