I’ve expressed deep worry about so-called “ag-gag” bills for the past several years, even devoting a section of Out of Sight to the issue. Basically, these are bills that criminalize knowledge of what happens inside big agricultural production facilities. They are a result of agribusiness outrage over animal rights activists getting jobs to film the abuse of animals. And that abuse is very real–in an industry that doesn’t care about its workers, angry, frustrated workers often take out those frustrations on the animals. The whole thing is awful, just like everything else about the modern meat industry. Ag-gag bills make the holding of that footage illegal and require it to be turned over to law enforcement. What is so scary about these bills is that reform of workplaces has usually required people being exposed to what is going on inside the factories. That included at Triangle, where the public exposure was watching young women die. Moreover, if filming what is happening inside agricultural facilities becomes illegal, what makes filming anything inside of any place of employment legal? There’s no good reason why this principle could not be applied universally to places of employment. That is extremely scary and takes away one of the only tools workers have to fight their own abuse.
Wyoming’s data trespass law violates First Amendment rights, a federal appeals court ruled today. The so-called ag-gag law, modeled on similar laws in at least eight other states, silenced free speech by making it a punishable offense to collect data—including photos—on public land for the purposes of reporting illegal pollution or other violations. By effectively banning investigations into potential breaches of environmental laws, it prohibited private citizens from doing their part to hold polluters, employers, and corporations accountable.
“The Wyoming statute tried to cut science and freedom of speech out of government decision-making,” said Michael Wall, litigation director at NRDC. “In this moment where science and the free press are under attack, the federal court upheld the essential role of public participation and free speech in our democracy.”
NRDC and a diverse group of other nonprofits—the Western Watersheds Project, the National Press Photographers Association, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), and the Center for Food Safety—filed the suit in federal court nearly two years ago. The data-censorship laws, signed by Wyoming’s governor, Matt Mead, in May 2015, had come about in direct response to Western Watersheds Project’s collection of water-quality data to highlight agricultural impacts to publicly owned land and streams in the state.
Today’s decision marks the third time in the past two years that a federal court has scrutinized such laws for violating the First Amendment. “This decision will rightly put one of the most egregiously un-American laws I have seen in recent years on the scrapheap with other censorship laws, where it belongs,” Wall said.
That this Wyoming law banned information taken on public land makes it even more frightening.
That said, given the New Gilded Age Supreme Court under Roberts, I am far from confident about the eventual fate of these laws.