‘Ag gag’ law criminalizing documentation of farming abuses passed in Wyoming

Reuters / Brian Snyder
Wyoming Governor Matt Mead has signed into law legislation designed to crack down on whistleblowers and journalists, or “trespassers,” who attempt to document without permission food safety or animal welfare violations on private property.

Though supportive legislators dubbed it a “data trespass” bill, Senate File 12, as the legislation is known, is considered the latest in a growing number of so-called ‘ag gag’ laws across the United States that seek to intimidate or censor those who attempt to capture abuses or safety concerns on farms small and large.

However, the language of the new law goes beyond farming concerns. It specifically bars “trespassing to unlawfully collect resource data and unlawful collection of resource data,” punishable by no more than one year in prison and a maximum $1,000 fine for first-time offenders.

“I want to remind the body that this is information, this data, is private information,” Sen. Larry Hicks said of the bill in January. “In a lot of ways it is no different than your social security number. It has some of the same ramifications if that resides in the public domain.”

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Gov. Mead signed the bill into law on Thursday after the Wyoming House and Senate approved the measure earlier in the state’s legislative session, which ended Friday.

Wyoming joins several states that have enacted ‘ag gag’ provisions, most notably Utah, Idaho, and Iowa.

A coalition of animal, environmental, and labor rights advocates filed a federal lawsuit in March 2014 to overturn Idaho’s law.

Undercover investigations that in the past have exposed gruesome conditions in -- or heavily-polluted areas near -- factory farms, for example, would be significantly more difficult, if not almost impossible, under ‘ag gag’ rules, according to opponents.

Wyoming’s law will “protect agribusinesses that abuse animals; break labor, or environmental laws by criminalizing investigators, whistleblowers or journalists that attempted to expose any type of abuse,” Linda Burt, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Wyoming, said when the bill was introduced.

Advocates for food safety say ‘ag gag’ laws fly in the face of growing movements in the US -- exemplified by anxiety surrounding GMO (genetically-modified organisms) foods -- that urge transparency from food producers.

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“Ag-gag laws take our food system in the wrong direction,” said Paige Tomaselli, senior attorney at Center for Food Safety.

“Allowing laws that reduce the accountability of food producers only further degrades our relationship with the land and our food. These laws work to criminalize speech intended to improve our food system and keep our food production behind closed doors. Without the ability to witness, expose, and critique some of the nation’s most powerful industries, we are all vulnerable.”

Activists who seek to expose factory farm abuses are already subject to the federal Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, which allows harsh punishment for any damage that results in a loss of property or profits for any entity that has a “connection to, relationship with, or transactions with an animal enterprise.”