Pending legislation in several states — including Florida — that would criminalize the act of filming agricultural operations without the consent of the farm owner came up last week on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360, with one analyst making the claim that conditions animals are subjected to by American industrial agriculture operations amount to institutionalized torture.
Pending legislation in several states — including Florida — that would criminalize the act of filming agricultural operations without the consent of the farm owner came up last week on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360, with one analyst making the claim that conditions animals are subjected to by American industrial agriculture operations amount to “institutionalized torture.”
Legal analyst Sunny Hostin noted that bills such as S.B. 1246, introduced by Sen. Jim Norman, R-Tampa, at the behest of one of the state’s largest industrial egg farmers and backed by agri-business organizations such as the Florida Farm Bureau, “probably isn’t constitutional,” based on its implications for rights afforded under the First Amendment.
A central argument offered by proponents of the bills in Florida, Iowa, and Minnesota is that these laws are necessary to protect the agriculture industry from whistleblowers who secretly record farming operations and then edit the images together in such a way as to present an inaccurate and oftentimes more gruesome representation of the conditions of animals on factory farms. Hostin insisted that laws already exist to protect farmers from slander or defamation brought about by inappropriately edited video, and that “the premise[s] of these bills are really disingenuous.”
“There’s a lack of transparency here with this bill,” Hostin said. “They’re saying even if what is being filmed is accurate, it would be illegal to do that. That is troubling.”
Norman’s bill was originally introduced with language that would have made undercover farm photography a first-degree felony, but that penalty was amended to a first-degree misdemeanor by the Senate Agriculture Committee last month. The bill is now awaiting review by the Criminal Justice Committee.
Animal advocacy groups such as PETA and the Humane Society of the United States, whose high-profile exposés have resulted in numerous food recalls and animal abuse convictions, argue that such legislation will lead to further abuse in an industry already lacking oversight. Further, they have raised concerns about the wide-ranging implications such a law could have on other seemingly unrelated industries fraught with issues relating to animal safety, such as puppy mills.
“The definition of agriculture in this bill is incredibly overbroad,” says Jennifer Hobgood, state director for the Humane Society of the United States. “So not only is this law unnecessary and overly defensive, it’s incredibly broad. I can’t imagine it would withstand constitutional scrutiny.”
“Puppy mills are another problem where it is extremely difficult to get on these properties,” she says. “Puppy mills are mass commercial dog-breeding operations, where dogs are kept for their entire lives in tiny cages for the sole purpose of churning out puppies for the pet trade. And so, like a factory farm, there are shabby, squalid, overcrowded conditions solely for profit. What happens is the puppies are taken away and sold elsewhere, but the parents are left in these conditions to suffer.
“In many instances, law enforcement can’t get on the property without a search warrant, and it’s difficult to get a search warrant without that evidence. Oftentimes we’ll be contacted by people who have been on the property and snapped a photo with their cell phone camera when the owner wasn’t looking, and that has led to them being able to get law enforcement to get a search warrant and investigate and help those animals.”
Another common argument among the bill’s backers is the notion of protecting agricultural operators from having their trade secrets exposed via undercover photography, a claim Norman himself offered in presenting the bill but was unable to qualify in an interview earlier this month.
“We haven’t heard from the bill’s proponents a single specific example of intellectual property having been put at risk from video or photography on a farm,” Hobgood says. “This bill aims to further hide from the public the industry’s intensive confinement practices and the risks these practices pose to animal welfare, the environment, and public health.”