Secretly videotaping farm animals would become illegal if a bill under consideration in the state Senate is passed, prompting outcries from animal rights groups who say it will chill their undercover investigations of abuse on farms.
Supporters of the bill, including the New York Farm Bureau, say the measure is merely a way of bringing security to the state's farms.
"The intent is to silence whistleblowers and to prevent undercover investigations," said Nathan D. Runkle, executive director of the animal rights group Mercy for Animals, based in Chicago. "We view that as a real problem."
Not so, farm groups say.
"The Department of Homeland Security has alerted the agricultural industry to secure their operations as much as they can," Farm Bureau spokesman Peter A. Gregg said. "This bill falls into that category."
The bill in question, dubbed the "ag gag" law by opponents, is sponsored by the chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton.
It deals with the "unlawful tampering" of farm animals, which includes unauthorized injecting animals with substances, releasing them, feeding them or "unauthorized video, audio recording or photography done without the farm owner's written consent."
The misdemeanor crime would carry a penalty of up to a year in prison or up to a $1,000 fine.
Similar bills have been introduced in Florida, Minnesota and Iowa, activists say. The bills died in Florida and Minnesota.
With such rules in place, Mr. Runkle's group would have violated the law when it exposed a worker abusing cows at the Willet Farm dairy operation in Locke. One of its undercover investigators gained employment at the dairy farm and videotaped the abuse via a small camera.
Abuse includes live animals discarded in the trash, baby cows' skulls smashed with pickaxes, and downed and sickly cows being used for food. Undercover investigations, activists say, are a key tool in the fight against those abuses.
Mr. Gregg, of the Farm Bureau, said the law would not put animal safety at risk.
"There's nothing in this law that would prohibit any kind of animal control officer to access our farms to investigate," he said.
The legality of undercover operations is ambiguous. For example, the Food Lion supermarket chain successfully sued ABC News in 1992 for trespass and breach of loyalty after journalists lied to gain employment and uncovered unsanitary food practices.
Mr. Runkle said what his group does is well within the bounds of the law, because the undercover investigators who are hired as employees do not lie on their applications. But such activities would become illegal if the bill under consideration passed.
Gene Baur, the president of Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, has been involved in some of the types of investigations that clearly violate trespassing law — though he's been charged only once, for walking on a farm to take video without permission.
"Trespassing is illegal," he said. "So I don't really understand what this intends to do, other than to add another level of penalty and protection for this particular industry whose behavior is outside the bounds of normal conduct."
Mrs. Ritchie, a sponsor of the legislation, said in an emailed statement the bill is a "starting point in the discussion of how to deal with the growing problem of trespassing on private farms by strangers with little experience or knowledge of modern farming practices."
"I am pleased that this bill is generating a healthy discussion that should help insure that New York is a place where the rights of farmers are protected, as well as the animals they raise," she said.