Bill would ban video of farming operations

  • Article by: BOB VON STERNBERG
  • Star Tribune
  • April 8, 2011 - 9:39 PM

It would become illegal in Minnesota to produce or distribute information about animal mistreatment or agricultural pollution under a bill introduced this week at the Legislature.

Animal rights advocates say the bill -- which resembles measures being pushed by legislators in other states, including Iowa -- amounts to an unconstitutional infringement on free speech that would have a chilling effect on whistle-blowers trying to bring attention to cases of animal cruelty.

Nonsense, said one of the sponsors of the bill, which is being pushed by the state's agriculture industry.

"It's aimed at people who are harassing and sabotaging these operations,'' said Sen. Doug Magnus, R-Slayton. "These people who go undercover aren't being truthful about what they're doing."

Howard Goldman, Minnesota director of the Humane Society of the United States, called the bill and similar measures elsewhere, "an attempt to criminalize whistle-blowing at a time when we need more transparency about animal welfare, not less. It goes after people with a really broad brush."

The House sponsor, Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, said such concerns are "absolutely wrong" and that people who document animal abuse would be "guilty of abuse" if they don't report it immediately to an operation's owner, management or law enforcement.

In the wording of the bill, "interference" with an "animal facility" without the owner's consent would become a felony, depending on the amount of damage to the operation. Livestock and crop operations, hatcheries, research facilities and kennels are among the facilities covered by the bill.

Producing video or audio recordings at facilities -- or even possessing them -- would also become illegal. In other states, free-speech advocates have said that provision would illegally criminalize journalists who disseminate activists' recordings.

"We think it would be an important deterrent tool in our toolbox against trespassers," said Daryn McBeth, president of the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council, a trade organization. "You've had these videos shot by fraudulently hired employees, that kind of thing."

If the bill gains traction at the Legislature, it could be amended to specifically protect whistle-blowers or increase criminal penalties for mistreatment of animals.

Animal rights activists have increasingly used video recordings to document cases of animal cruelty, and Goldman called the bill an attempt by agribusiness to "shield its entire operation from public scrutiny and stifle open dialogue."

Goldman, Magnus and McBeth said there has been no extensive track record of exposés of animal cruelty in Minnesota, but a case that came to light in Willmar late last year is the type that could be affected if the bill becomes law.

In that case, an investigator sent by the Humane Society into the nation's largest turkey hatchery captured video images of practices that included workers tossing sick, injured or surplus animals into grinding machines while still alive. A company spokesman said at the time that the video showed acceptable industry practices but acknowledged that some of its employees' actions appeared to violate the company's animal welfare policies.

Similar bills are being considered in Florida, Idaho and Iowa, which is where Magnus said he got the idea for the legislation after speaking to that bill's sponsor.

"People have been going into these facilities and doing all kinds of mischief over the years," he said. "If you want to see what's going on in a facility, tell the owner straight up, but don't engage in outright lies."

Hearings on the bill have not yet been scheduled in the House or Senate.

Bob von Sternberg • 651-222-0973

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