Australian Animal Rights Group Stirs Controversy With Map Targeting Farmers

by John M. Simpson.

Aussie Farms, an animal rights organization in Australia, recently published an interactive map on its website and Facebook page that provides particulars on a wide range of animal enterprises in Australia.  The map includes street addresses and actual map grid coordinates for farms and similar enterprises located throughout Australia.  Each of the map locations has a live link to a database of information that Aussie Farms claims it has assembled on the targeted businesses.

The posting of the map was strongly condemned by the National Farmers’ Federation (NFF), a prominent organization representing farmers in Australia.  An NFF press release quotes an NFF spokesperson as remarking that farmers:

“are rightly distressed that their name has incorrectly been linked to ‘animal cruelty’. …  They are extremely anxious and very angry that their workplace, and their home, has become the target of extreme and dangerous activities.  …

Almost every day, we’re seeing examples of activists accessing farms and businesses without permission, seeking to disrupt the work our farmers do.  These types of stunts risk human and animal well-being and are deeply offensive.”

Aussie Farms describes itself as “an animal rights charity, dedicating [sic] to ending commercialized animal abuse and exploitation in Australian animal agriculture facilities by increasing industry transparency and educating the public about modern farming and slaughtering practices.”  One of Aussie Farms’ stated “core values” is to “[b]elieve in the rights of non-human animals to not be exploited, owned, abused or killed for human purposes.”  Aussie Farms claims that the map and repository are simply intended to improve transparency — “to bring all of this evidence together so that we can all freely view, share and use it in our efforts towards a common goal.”  The Australian Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources saw it differently, reportedly stating as follows:

“What this animal activist group has done is effectively put out an attack map for their activists to go out there and to trespass. … They are not going to stop until we are all eating grass.  That’s the reality.”

The map and repository cover multiple categories of businesses in Australia involving a plethora of different animals — “food animals” like beef cattle, broiler chickens, goats, honey bees, kangaroos, pigs and rabbits; “pets,” including dogs, cats and fish; “wildlife;” “entertainment,” including circuses and zoos; “clothing,” including fur, leather and wool; and “science,” including cosmetic and medical testing.

Each position on the Aussie Farms map leads to a tabbed chart that gives the name (apparently where known) of the facility, its street address and map coordinates and a summary (apparently where known) of the activity at the location.  The entry also contains tabs for photos, videos, documents and news articles about the facility.  In many instances, there are no particular photos and the like about the facility but the chart contains a live link to what is claimed to be photos and the like “from similar facilities.”  The basis for this claim of “similarity” is not disclosed.

The map further invites members of the public to submit information and to upload photos, videos, documents and news articles about the businesses portrayed on the map.  It is unclear what the standard for publication is.  Aussie Farms claims that “[a]nything that gets uploaded unless it comes from a reputable organization such as the various Animal Liberation groups, will be screened  by the Aussie Farms Repository team before being published to ensure nothing malicious, deceptive or irrelevant slips through the cracks.”  A standard that seems to regard as “reputable” the “various Animal Liberation groups” is not likely to be of any comfort to a farmer targeted by this map.

The Aussie Farms map — particularly the posting of addresses and map coordinates about individual businesses (many of which are family farms that combine the agricultural operation with the homestead) — is reminiscent of a tactic that was employed by an animal rights organization that operated in the U.S. and U.K. several years ago.  Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) dedicated itself to stopping the use by Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS) of animals in pharmaceutical testing.  One of SHAC’s tactics was to publish, on its website, information about the home addresses of individuals who either worked for HLS or were employed by companies doing business with HLS.  The information was used by activists, some of whom had no discernible connection to SHAC, to stage “protests” at these various private residences, some of which led to vandalism, property damage and threats of physical violence.  In the U.S., the publication of the home address information of the targeted victims was a central part of the evidence that led to the criminal conviction of SHAC and certain of its members for, inter alia, a conspiracy to violate the Animal Enterprise Protection Act, 18 U.S.C. § 43, as well as a conspiracy to commit interstate stalking in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2261A.  See United States v. Fullmer, 584 F.3d 132 (3d Cir. 2009).  The same conduct — publication of home addresses and the like — also supported an injunction against SHAC in a case involving claims for violation of the California statute prohibiting harassment and for the torts of intentional infliction of emotional distress,  invasion of privacy, intrusion into private affairs and trespass.  See Novartis Vaccines and Diagnostics, Inc. v. Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty USA, Inc., 143 Cal. App. 4th 1284 (2006).  The courts in both cases rejected the argument that SHAC’s actions were covered by the free speech guarantee of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  In 2014, after several additional SHAC members were sent to prison in the U.K., SHAC reportedly ended its campaign against HLS.

Whether the Aussie Farms actions will generate similar legal difficulties for that group in Australia remains to be seen.  The NFF has demanded that the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission retract the charitable status of Aussie Farms and has stated that it will contact the police departments in each state and territory about the Aussie Farms map and its implications.

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The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the author and are not to be construed as legal advice.

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