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Ag-Gag bill draws a crowd at Statehouse hearing

Dairy cows feed Robert Berndt's farm Hobart. | File~Sun-Times Media

Dairy cows feed at Robert Berndt's farm in Hobart. | File~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: April 23, 2013 2:08PM

INDIANAPOLIS - Farm industry lobbyists told lawmakers they need protection from overzealous activists, but free speech supporters fear such legislation could go too far, as people crowded a tiny committee room in the Statehouse Thursday.

Legislation in the Indiana General Assembly known as the “Ag-Gag bill” would prevent publishing photographs or video of a farm or industry. The bill would make doing so a criminal infraction with fines of up to $10,000 for distributing the photos or video to the public. The bill provides a defense if a whistleblower submits the material to a regulating authority or police within 48 hours.

A similar effort failed to pass in Illinois in 2012, but Iowa, Utah, North Dakota, Montana, and Kansas have passed measures banning such actions.

Independent farmers, the media and concerned citizens say such a law would breach First Amendment rights, and keep inhumane animal husbandry practices out of the public spotlight.

State Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle, author of the bill, said it is designed to protect farmers’ property rights, preventing someone from entering a property without the owner’s consent.

The bill stems from large farming organizations facing public relations nightmares when animal rights activists go undercover. Supporters of the bill cited incidents with Indiana-based egg producer Rose Acre Farms, where a man got a job at a facility in Madison County, Iowa, filmed fowl that were deceased or disfigured, then distributed the film.

Indiana Farm Bureau spokesman Andy Dietrick said the bill does not discourage the act of whistle blowing, but protects the farmer from organizations that manipulate videos to defame the farmer. “What happens is the video is taken over time, manipulated, is edited with other images and sounds,” Dietrick said, “It could be images from other farms or could be from years ago, and packaged to be something that isn’t true. Those videos are posted online and distributed, causing harm for the business operation.”

Overreaching effects

Scott Miller, from Indianapolis, says the bill goes too far. “There are already laws on the books that protect farms, like trespassing, breaking and entering, eavesdropping,” Miller said, “This is a situation where they’re making a law to protect a specific industry.”

Steve Key, president of the Hoosier State Press Association, said the language could also affect all kinds of industry, since it includes agricultural and industrial property. With large fines, it could make any employee think twice before documenting a problem. “This could concern environmental violations, worker safety hazards, or public safety issues,” Key said, “all kinds of photographs and videos that might be in the public interest to expose.”

Barbara Sha Cox, a fourth generation farmer from Richmond, was one of the last to testify at the hearing. She felt the bill gave all farmers a bad reputation. “This bill makes it look like all farmers have something they want to hide,” she said. “Everyone will wonder what we’re doing so wrong that we have to have protection. And it infringes on our Constitution.”

Cox also worries about the effectiveness of requiring a whistleblower to go to state authorities or police. She remembers times when environmental hazards caused by local farmers weren’t fixed until either local or national media featured a story.

While the bill passed through the state Senate in February, it could face revisions in the House. The agriculture committee did not vote Thursday on the bill, and House Speaker Brian Bosma said the bill may be looked at with more scrutiny.

“It’s my understanding that the folks looking at the bill have appointed a small committee to take a look and see if the bill made sense,” Bosma said, “and what it’s impact [is]on First Amendment rights. They are considering some major revisions to the bill.”

A separate resolution to amend the state constitution that would protect commercial farming companies has also passed the Senate, and waits for a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee. If approved by the House, it would go to a statewide ballot.

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