Animal rights activists have told the Supreme Court that laws criminalizing the use of secretly recorded sightings of animal cruelty and abuse put a “too much burden on speech”.
The Farm Transparency Project, an Australian animal advocacy group, launched a case earlier this year, arguing that New South Wales laws restricting the use of secret footage put an unfair burden on freedom of political communication.
The state’s Surveillance Devices Act criminalizes the use of footage or audio obtained with a listening device or hidden camera, but unlike other states, it does not grant any public interest exemption.
Laws have been used to prosecute activists on criminal charges and the media has been prohibited from using footage depicting cruelty or abuse in slaughterhouses and coats of arms across the state.
Guardian Australia was recently banned from showing secretly recorded footage of former racehorses being sent to slaughter at pet food plants in New South Wales, in clear violation of industry rules.
In written submissions to the Supreme Court, the Farm Transparency Project said the issue was not about how the activists were viewed by the general public.
“What is being challenged is related to the law,” she said.
Whether the plaintiffs are seen as impressive activists, vulgar vigilantes, or anything in between is irrelevant. If anything, it is the issue of publishers whose freedom to publish is being restricted.”
The memos refer to similar laws in Victoria, the Northern Territory, South Australia and Western Australia, which contain excerpts allowing the use of such footage that accommodate the implied right to freedom of political communication.
The Transparency Project argues that “this is mainly because the blanket ban is too burdensome to speak, considering legitimate social interests in the publication of the watchdog’s material, particularly for the sake of ‘whistle blowing’.”
“It should not be overlooked that vigilance cannot be overlooked. But this is to highlight the importance of the delicate balance – in each case – where the public interest lies, which in turn highlights the importance of exempting the ‘public interest.’”
Reports point to the greyhound live-baiting scandal as an example of the public interest served by the publication of such footage. This video helped spark a public investigation that found that the NSW industry had lost its social licence, leading to a proposed ban that had not been implemented after a backlash.
Farm Transparency Project Executive Director Chris Delforce has previously said the case has broader implications for so-called “ag-gag” laws across the country.
Delforce said challenging the law’s validity would help prevent other jurisdictions from enacting similar blanket bans.
“We have had enough — these industries need more transparency, not less,” he said. “The animals suffering on our nation’s farms, slaughterhouses and cemeteries deserve their stories to be told, and the Australian public deserves the opportunity to hear them.”
Not all animal rights groups support the use of hidden cameras. The RSPCA opposes the use of illegal means to fight for animal welfare.
The High Court is expected to receive applications from the NSW government this week, and the Farms Transparency Project will be given an opportunity to respond next month.