Farm whistle-blower bill overreaches

By The Gazette Editorial Board


What if you caught someone breaking a law, but you could be charged with breaking a different law if you reported what you found?

Last week, the Iowa House passed a bill that could allow just that scenario. HF589 criminalizes secret recordings of sounds or images at farm operations. It’s aimed at stopping investigative journalists and animal rights activists who try to collect evidence of inhumane treatment of livestock.

This is a bad bill overall. It overreaches and would serve to stifle valuable whistle-blower activity, and could even backfire and hurt responsible operators.

Specifically, this proposal would make it a crime to “possess or distribute a record which produces an image or sound occurring at the animal facility (or crop operation)” if it was taken without permission of the owner.

It also provides penalties for intentionally damaging equipment or injuring livestock. No quarrel with that provision, although it would seem existing laws would cover such wrongdoing.

It’s the secret recordings ban that raises First Amendment red flags. Supporters of the bill say it is needed to better protect farm operators from being discredited “because a lot of those videos have been edited and ... staged,” Rep. Annette Sweeney, R-Alden, argued.

Such misuse certainly is possible. But libel and other laws already prohibit deliberate and inaccurate representation, and whistle-blowers can also be sued.

Without the recordings, complaints against violators could be reduced to the level of hearsay — which could discourage valid investigations by law enforcement. Neighbors or others making accusations without evidence can unfairly damage the reputation of responsible operators, too.

And what about the work whistle-blowers, including conscientious employees, do to ferret out inhumane and illegal treatment of animals at some farm operations?

For example, on June 7, 2010, as part of a civil settlement stemming from a Mercy For Animals undercover investigation, Quality Egg of New England, one of the nation’s biggest egg producers, pleaded guilty to 10 counts of cruelty to animals. Quality Egg also agreed to pay more than $130,000 in fines and restitution, and allow the state of Maine to conduct unannounced inspections for the next five years.

The Iowa bill also could penalize news organizations for possessing, publishing or airing undercover footage and photos. That won’t fly. Just last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that another law banning possession and distribution of video showing cruelty to animals was unconstitutional.

The Iowa Senate should ignore this legislation. It would do more harm than good.

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