A controversial Senate bill currently under review in Tallahassee will be revised, according to a spokesman for the Florida Farm Bureau.
State Sen. Jim Norman, R-Tampa, introduced S.B. 1246 to the Senate on Tuesday. As written, it would make it a first-degree felony to photograph farming activities in the state. Norman, whose office has yet to respond to requests seeking comment, recently claimed the bill is geared towards protecting the “intellectual property rights” of farmers, noting that the legislation would prevent individuals from misrepresenting themselves to obtain images of farming activities.
Ben Parks, director of state legislative affairs for the Florida Farm Bureau Federation, agrees that the bill will help farmers keep their competitive edge, but says the main thrust is to deter animal-rights activists from obtaining imagery used to harm the industry.
“Farmers are in competition with other farmers, but it’s those PETA [People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals] groups that come in and make these outrageous statements about how bad farming is,” he says, “We’ve read the statements about what they’ve done in the past and so we’re trying to prevent them from disrupting our operations.”
“A concern of many of our farmers and ranchers are the extremist groups that intentionally and maliciously want to come on a farm and try to shed a bad light on a farming operation,” he says. “They might take pictures of animals in different positions so it looks like they might be being hurt or whatever it might be, and we’ve heard in many cases from what’s happened out west and in other places, so we want to get ahead of the curve before they hit here in Florida and try to do the same thing.”
The Florida Farm Bureau, whose mission is “to increase the net income of farmers and ranchers, and to improve the quality of rural life,” boasts a membership of about 140,000 and was one of several agriculture entities to donate to Norman’s bid for office. Parks says his organization was not involved with crafting the original bill.
“We weren’t involved. One of our members suggested some language to Sen. Norman,” he says. “We had seen it briefly and were going to be working on it and then it was filed. We probably would not have filed it the way it was. It should have had some more work on it.”
Much focus has been paid to the current language of the bill, which would make aerial photography or pictures taken from a public road a felony, punishable by up to 30 years in prison. Parks says that the intent of the photographer is what matters.
“Yes, there are sections that need to be changed, and we’re in the process of doing that,” he says. “It’s mainly that person that trespasses with the intent, knowingly, that wants to either disrupt a farming operation or shed a bad light on it, that’s the intent. … It’s not written exactly how we’d like it.”
As for penalties for whistleblowers caught recording images on farms, Parks says that portion is undergoing revision. Asked if a first-degree felony is an extreme sentence, Parks agrees.
“It is harsh,” he says. “As I said, we’re revising the whole thing. We would have done things differently with the bill. It’s getting a lot of play and we’re working on it.”