ARTICLE

Blow the whistle on this proposal

Gazett Editorial Board

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Iowa lawmakers are once again considering a crackdown on whistle-blowers bearing cameras in the countryside.

For two consecutive sessions, the Legislature has debated making it a crime to secretly shoot video inside a livestock operation. Backers want to take aim at animal rights activists who get jobs at facilities and collect secret video of animal mistreatment or other wrongdoing. Those videos have been a public relations problem for an important Iowa industry.

This time around, instead of focusing on the use of cameras, a Senate amendment to a bill that passed the House in 2011, HF 589, would make it a crime to gain employment on a farm under false pretenses. So basically, a person who gets a job at a livestock facility with the intent of investigating its operation and practices could be guilty of a crime.

But the change of focus does not change our 2011 position. This is a misguided bill that would be a bad law. We urge the Senate to do what it did last year. Shelve the whole idea and move on.

We certainly understand the importance of the livestock industry in Iowa. But we also understand the importance of whistle-blowers within the scope of an industry charged with handling animals and putting safe food on America’s table.

Overzealous animal rights activists can pose a threat to the image of livestock producers. Some have gone too far, inaccurately depicting and sensationalizing common, reasonable farming practices. That’s a problem. But criminalizing the investigation and reporting of wrongdoing or criminality, we believe, could cause far more serious problems.

The Senate measure would have a sharp, chilling affect on activists, journalists and even facility employees who took a farm job under no false pretense whatsoever. Even the chance of being charged with a crime would likely be enough to keep many of them silent.

The amendment, offered by Sen. Joe Seng, D-Davenport, and Sen. Tim Kapucian, R-Keystone, would also aim criminal penalties at anyone who “aids and abets” what they call “agricultural facility fraud,’ including anyone who knows about the so-called fraud or harbors the whistle-blower. That sets up the possibility that news organizations or other groups and individuals that receive evidence from whistle-blowers could be criminally liable.

Basically, we believe throwing a criminal net this broad and potentially damaging to head off a public relations problem is the wrong use of legislative authority. Food safety and animal treatment laws are meant to benefit the health and welfare of all Iowans, and should be fully and rigorously enforced. Lawmakers should not seek to create bubbles of special protection for certain industries, no matter how important or influential.

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