A bill filed by state Sen. Jim Norman, R-Tampa, would make photographing farms without the written consent of the owner a first-degree felony in Florida. Senate Bill 1246, simply titled “Farms,” has caused a stir among animal advocacy groups for comparing a potential whistleblower who might expose the realities of factory farming — or even a tourist snapping a photograph of cows grazing in a field — with those who commit murder or armed robbery.

“This bill is particularly outrageous, and frankly Sen. Norman should be ashamed of himself for even introducing a bill like this,” says Jeff Kerr, general counsel for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (aka PETA).

The language of the bill, which is very brief, notes that video or photographic records were taken “at or of a farm” would become illegal, and the guilty party could face the same penalties as a violent criminal — including a $10,000 fine and up to 30 years in prison.

“It’s beyond ridiculous, blatantly unconstitutional, and clearly designed to protect animal abusers,” Kerr says. “He should be introducing bills to require cameras be in slaughterhouses and animal-raising facilities so the abusers can be identified and prosecuted, not protected behind closed doors.”

There are currently no mechanisms in place to monitor animal welfare on Florida’s farms, with inspections focusing on the food itself, not the conditions of the animals. Organizations such as PETA and the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida contend Norman drafted the legislation in response to a number of high-profile exposés that revealed horrific conditions on farms around the country, and worry that without whistleblowers the industry will operate with impunity.

Whistleblowers play an important role in our society — exposing waste, fraud, and abuse not just in agribusiness but in any industry,” Humane Society of the United States spokesman Paul Shapiro says. ”Agribusiness is notoriously secretive because many of its standard industry practices are so extreme, so cruel, that they are out of step with what mainstream American values would demand of our treatment of animals.”

Even within the agribusiness community itself, an internal discussion has emerged about the merits of Norman’s legislation.

The editor of CattleNetwork.com, a website affiliated with the nation’s oldest monthly livestock magazine Drovers, recently authored a piece questioning the logic of Norman’s bill, asserting that such “extreme” measures give the impression that the industry has something to hide:

[W]e need more transparency in agricultural production. In reality, the vast majority of livestock operations are well-managed, with owners and workers adhering to high standards of animal care. Consumers do want to know more about their food and where it comes from, and when they have a chance to see and experience modern livestock production first-hand, they typically come away with positive impressions.

For farmers and ranchers, the focus should not be on legislation or other means of concealing their production practices. Instead, they should engage the public with a policy of transparency.

Nick Atwood of Animal Rights Foundation of Florida claims “the bill is a reaction to the many investigations by animal-rights groups around the country.”

“Our organization has done some filming at farms in Florida, but they haven’t generated the kind of attention that investigations in other states have caused,” he says. “We think the bill is unconstitutional and has very little chance of passing, but still it’s concerning that the senator thought it was an issue that he had to address.”

In 2008, an investigation by the Human Society of the United States led to the largest beef recall in U.S. history — 143 million pounds — and brought the realities of industrial agriculture and factory farming to the nation’s attention in a visceral way.

While animal advocacy organizations feel Norman’s legislation targets their efforts to expose abuse, some point to the notion of protecting “trade secrets” as the rationale for such measures.

Via the Florida Tribune:

Wilton Simpson, a farmer who lives in Norman’s district, said the bill is needed to protect the property rights of farmers and the “intellectual property” involving farm operations.

Simpson, president of Simpson Farms near Dade City, said the law would prevent people from posing as farmworkers so that they can secretly film agricultural operations.

He said he could not name an instance in which that happened. But animal rights groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and Animal Freedom display undercover videos on their web sites to make their case that livestock farming and meat consumption are cruel.

“Our investigations over many years have given the public a look inside these facilities,” Kerr says. “We’ve shown pigs being kicked in the head and spray-painted in the eyes, sadistic employees stomping and throwing chickens and turkeys like they’re baseballs and footballs, pigs being sexually assaulted with gate rods or having their heads smashed with cinder blocks.”

“This is the kind of stuff that goes on every single day, and it’s the stuff that should be exposed,” he says. “The doors of slaughterhouses should be swung open wide so people can see where their food comes from, not slammed shut like this senator would suggest.”

Jim Norman is a former Hillsborough County commissioner who became embroiled in controversy last fall and was briefly removed from the ballot after failing to disclose that his wife had received a $500,000 home loan from a Tampa businessman Norman had a cozy relationship with.

Several messages left with Norman’s office seeking comment were not returned.

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