Debate intensifies over animal undercover filming

Mar 1, 2012, 4:41 PM

Associated Press

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) – Animal welfare groups reacted with outrage Wednesday after the Iowa Legislature made the state the first to approve a bill making it a crime to surreptitiously get into a farming operation to record video of animal abuse.

The groups have urged Gov. Terry Branstad to veto the measure that was overwhelmingly approved Tuesday by the Iowa House and Senate, arguing that the measure would prevent people from publicizing animal abuse.

“The intent behind the legislation is to put a chilling effect on whistleblowers on factory farms,” said Matthew Dominguez, a spokesman for the Humane Society of the United States. “It begs the question of, what exactly does animal agriculture have to hide?”

Legislatures in seven states _ Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New York and Utah_ have considered laws that would enhance penalties against those who secretly record video of livestock, though the efforts have stalled in some states.

The Iowa measure would establish a new penalty for lying on a job application to get access to a farm facility, making it a serious misdemeanor. A second conviction would be an aggravated misdemeanor.

A serious misdemeanor carries a fine of up to $1,500 and imprisonment up to one year. An aggravated misdemeanor can be punished by a fine of up to $5,000 and imprisonment of up to two years.

Branstad spokesman Tim Albrecht said the governor’s office had received numerous calls from people on both sides of the issue, and he noted that animal welfare groups had launched campaigns on Twitter and Facebook.

Branstad has strong ties to Iowa’s agricultural industry, which has supported the measure. Albrecht also noted that the governor was impressed with the Legislature’s support of the measure, which passed the Senate 40-10 and the House 69-28.

The issue is especially important in Iowa because the state is the nation’s leading pork and egg producer. Its farms typically have more than 19 million hogs and 54 million egg-laying chickens in barns and confinement buildings.

Thanks to that status, Iowa operations have been targeted by groups seeking to publicize animal abuse or controversial industry practices, such as confining sows and chickens in small crates.

The Los Angeles-based group Mercy for Animals, which has released undercover videos depicting conditions for chickens and hogs in Iowa, has planned a demonstration at the Iowa Capitol on Thursday. Members of the group will dress in black and wear blindfolds and gags to illustrate what they call an ag-gag bill.

“Iowa has some of the weakest animal cruelty laws in the nation,” Nathan Runkle, the group’s spokesman, said in a statement. “Lawmakers should be focusing on strengthening these pathetic laws, not silencing whistleblowers who expose animal abuse or other serious issues involving the safety and security of the American food supply.”

The Iowa measure was changed from an earlier version due to concerns that language making undercover video recording illegal could violate free speech protections in the U.S. Constitution.

Sen. Joe Seng, a Davenport Democrat and veterinarian who sponsored the bill, said the measure strikes a balance by discouraging animal activists from sneaking into livestock facilities but not prohibiting someone who legitimately works there from reporting animal abuse.

“I feel that we did something that was needed. It more than anything sends a message,” Seng said. “But I didn’t think it was real egregious to the animal welfare people.”

He said the livestock industry has legitimate concerns about unauthorized people infiltrating their facilities because they could track in disease or let mice or other unwanted vermin into farm buildings.

Iowa grain and hog farmer John Weber said he realizes people want to be sure animals are treated humanely but said it’s easy for groups to get video of livestock that when paired with dramatic music can give an improper impression.

“It became clear to everyone that agriculture did need some type of protection because it was just too easy for people to infiltrate or to lie on job applications for the purpose of sabotaging a business,” said Weber, who farms near Dysart, about 100 miles northeast of Des Moines.

Craig Hill, president of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, said he hopes Branstad will sign the bill and that other states will follow Iowa’s lead.

“I hope that we can display some success here and other states can follow suit and gain from the experience that we’ve had here developing this bill in Iowa,” he said. “We don’t want to do anything that amends somebody’s right to turn somebody in if they’re a bad actor or limit the freedom of speech. That’s not the goal here.”

Hill raises hogs on his 1,700-acre farm near Milo, about 30 miles southeast of Des Moines.

Scott Hendrick, a senior policy specialist for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said Iowa was the first to approve such restrictions. Florida and Minnesota considered bills last year, but they died in their legislatures, he said.

Among those states considering similar bills this year, Utah could be the next to follow Iowa in approving a measure.

The Utah House has approved a bill that would make it a misdemeanor to film on private agricultural property without the owner’s consent, and the measure is now awaiting debate in the Senate.

In Nebraska, lawmakers have opted not to take action on a bill making it a felony to take a job at an animal facility with the intent of disrupting normal operations. The bill also would require anyone uncovering animal abuse to report it and hand in videos, photos and other evidence to authorities within 12 hours. Failure to do so would be a felony.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Tyson Larson of O’Neill, said he expects to bring the bill back next year.

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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Debate intensifies over animal undercover filming