New BC Draft Legislation Outlaws Phone Books, Pet Store Advertisements, and Media Coverage of Fish Farm Disease Outbreaks
Update: More stupid sections of this legislation will be gone into on Monday, plus some appaling scientific illiteracy on the part of the minister, but in the meantime, check out Sister Sage’s Musings for a section of the law which bans various — and we both quote the law here — “things.”
Geek that I am, I may not be the best person to make this recommendation, but if you want to read something truly screwy, you could do worse than checking out BC’s Animal Health Act, currently at first reading in the provincial legislature. This new piece of legislation has two objectives: to control the spread of diseases on farms and fish farms, and to control the spread of information about those diseases.
Press coverage so far has been mixed. Somewhat missing the point (which I’ll get to in a second), the Times-Colonist worries that it authorizes the province’s chief veterinarian to release “unlimited personal information.” The Province is rightly more concerned that the proposed law would outlaw anyone, including journalists and ordinary members of the public, from merely discussing a real or alleged disease outbreak on a farm. When one of my readers first sent me this article and asked that I blog about it, I assumed the paper was engaging in some little exaggeration.
This bill is so presposterously Orwellian, so unbelievably over the top, that whoever wrote it must have been on crack. Let’s do another of my patented legislative summaries, shall we?
Of course if we’re going to talk about censoring information about animal disease, you’ll want to know what an animal is, and so the Act helpfully supplies a definition: “(a) a species of the animal kingdom, and (b) any organism prescribed as an animal.” Of course if there’s enough uncertainty that you actually need a definition, I don’t think “animal kingdom” is going to be any more helpful to you than just plain “animal.” But I am intrigued by the government’s claim that it can legally define, say, a daffodil or a banana to be an animal.
It also defines “person responsible,” just so you’re clear: anyone who has “control of,” or is the “operator” of an animal. Yeah, I’m not sure about that last one either. But more to the point, the law is written broadly enough that it covers everyone from the owner of a large ranch to a kid with an ant farm or a handful of captured caterpillars. Which will become relevant in a moment.
And then, after various discussions of what inspectors and owners can and can’t do, we get to Section 16, which is the focus of the criticism, and which does indeed state that “a person must refuse, despite the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, to disclose… information that would reveal that a notifiable or reportable disease is or may be present in a specific place.”
Interestingly, a “notifiable or reportable” disease is any disease the existence of which an animal owner is legally required to disclose to the government. So if you see evidence of an animal disease which must be reported to the government, you are explicitly banned from discussing it. With anyone else and, presumably, with the government.
That’s what’s got people excited, but most of the people who are excited can’t possibly have read the act, and those who first reported on it were obviously skimming looking for interesting information, because before they got to that offensive phrase they must have read the even better ban on disclosing any:
information that would identify the person responsible for an animal or an animal product… [or] information that would identify an animal or an animal product or byproduct that is located at or in a specific place.”
So yes, the new Animal Health Act would make it a crime for a journalist to report on the existence of an outbreak of a disease on a farm. But on the other hand, it would also make it illegal for you to say that your neighbour Jim owns a beagle named Sam, or some goldfish, or a compost bin full of earthworms.
When this bill is passed, I intend to publish a list of British Columbian pet stores on this blog. It may be the last legal advertising they’ll get for a while.
But it gets worse. A perceptive reader, or simply someone with a background in biology, will no doubt have picked up on something else: this law applies to any “member of the animal kingdom.” But… we belong to the animal kingdom! From now on apparently it will be illegal to announce the specific location (or owner) of any person. I guess that rules out distributing phone books, too.
You will have guessed by now that I don’t really think the government plans to ban phone books and pet store advertising. But they have written this law so broadly that it appears to do that. Either they’re being sloppy, or they’re deliberately creating an extremely broad rule that they can selectively enforce. Either way, it’s yet another thing to remember the next time British Columbians go to the ballot box.
Update: Interestingly, the definition of animal came up in the House on May 16th, where it was the subject of an asinine back-and-forth between an NDP critic who was concerned that fish weren’t included in the Act (because he said fish weren’t animals), and the minister, who defended his newly claimed power to define animals into existence on the grounds that at some point in the future a “cultured beneficial bacteria” might be discovered and the government wanted to be able to declare it to be an animal if they needed to.
No wonder this government has been so disastrous to the province’s school system. They apparently dropped out some time before their first biology class.Tweet