Animal rights activists – what does the law say?
In 2019, animal rights activist group Aussie Farms posted online maps of factory farms, slaughterhouses and so-called “animal exploitation” facilities around Australia. A registered charity, Aussie Farms claimed that it was trying to fight animal abuse and exploitation.
Farmers targeted by animal rights activists
Inviting other activists to upload photographs or videos obtained on farming properties, Aussie Farms claimed that its aim was to “end commercialised animal abuse and exploitation in Australia by increasing industry transparency and educating the public about modern farming and slaughtering practices”.
Farmers were understandably outraged by these acts of trespass, intimidation and online posting by Aussie Farms. The National Farmers’ Federation denounced the actions as a gross invasion of privacy, bordering on terrorism.
The government was equally furious, saying it was an “attack list” for animal rights activists and posed risks to biosecurity and the personal safety of farmers and their families.
Is public release of personal and property-related information legal?
The law regarding this is unclear. While trespassing on private property is illegal, there is nothing in the law that prohibits publishing the personal addresses of farmers on the Aussie Farms website.
With many names and addresses listed publicly in telephone directories, many of the details that Aussie Farms are posting on their website are openly available.
However, it is a different matter to release video and photos of a farm that have been obtained by committing an act of trespass.
Broadcasting footage recorded while trespassing
A prominent case involving animal rights activists was the 2001 High Court decision on whether the ABC could broadcast footage taken by activists via a hidden camera in a Tasmanian factory. The footage allegedly showed cruelty to brush-tailed possums which were being processed for export. (See Australian Broadcasting Corporation v Lenah Game Meats Pty Ltd H2/2000  HCATrans 128, 3 April 2001.)
A lower court had granted an injunction sought by the meat processors, stopping the ABC from broadcasting the footage. The High Court lifted the injunction, even though the footage was taken without the landowner’s permission and involved trespass. The High Court decided it was in the public interest to allow the broadcast.
Can an animal rights activist be sued for defamation?
To sue an animal rights activist for defamation, the farmer would have to identify the defamer first, then prove publication, as well as damage to reputation.
As Rick Sarre, Adjunct Professor of Law and Criminal Justice at the University of South Australia, said in an article, “The test is: does that website, in naming people who it asserts may be cruel to animals, hold them up for contempt or ridicule, and harm their reputation in the eyes of right-minded observers? It’s not an easy case for farmers to win, because few people are going to think less of farmers just because they are slaughtering meat for the market.”
Drone footage and the law
According to a House of Representatives report that investigated drones and the regulation of air safety and privacy, a landowner cannot stop a drone filming above his or her property, as long as the operator sticks to the rules regarding height and proximity to people and buildings.
However, if these rules are broken, farmers can request that their name and address be removed from the drone footage. If this request is ignored, farmers can then file a complaint with the Information Commissioner.