A bill introduced in this session of the Indiana General Assembly could have had a chilling effect on First Amendment rights had changes not been made.
Senate Bill 101, commonly known as the “ag gag” bill, would allow farmers to post signs prohibiting trespassing that could compromise operations or trade secrets. Proponents say the bill protects agricultural operations. However, the bill’s original language took aim at people who make photographs or record videos of farming operations.
The original version drew support from organizations such as Indiana Farm Bureau. The organization said in a news release that it was important that state laws “protect the rights of Hoosiers to advance and grow all businesses, including farms, to strengthen Indiana’s economy and make Indiana a positive place to work, play and raise a family.”
In the same news release, Indiana Farm Bureau lauded state Sen. Brent Steele, R-Bedford, for introducing similar legislation last year, which ultimately was defeated.
“We agree with Sen. Steele that the actions and rhetoric of activist opponents of agriculture make protections a necessity,” the organization said.
That’s a spin to make it sound like concerned environmental and animal rights activists are nuisances who need to be brushed aside.
Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle, author of the legislation, said farmers are being unfairly targeted by groups that want to vandalize or harm their businesses.
There is merit in his statement in that some environmental groups have used paparazzi tactics to produce videos or photographs, which is unethical. Photos or videos that take farm operations out of context are wrong.
However, consumers like to know if there could be any problems with the food they eat. Genuine watchdog reporting can expose those problems.
Punishing people who produced images of animal cruelty or environmental hazards was a way to protect farmers’ interests.
The bill’s original language would have harmed the public by trampling on free speech rights and the watchdog role of media and concerned environmental and animal groups. Organizations such as the Hoosier Environmental Council and the Hoosier State Press Association testified to that effect recently at the Statehouse.
“HSPA believes the intent is to stifle the expression of opinions concerning agricultural processes by creating a mechanism that would make such expression criminal,” Steve Key, HSPA’s executive director and general counsel, told lawmakers.
And, Key said, the bill discounted existing remedies to deal with trespassing or bad behavior by employees, such as termination of the employee, libel, civil trespassing, criminal trespassing and protection of trade secrets.
Fortunately, an amended version of the bill was passed last week by the Senate criminal law committee. The farm lobby overreached by trying to ban and punish secret video recordings or photographs at farms. The revised bill only increases protection against trespassers who cause physical damage to farm property. Essentially, it’s a criminal mischief bill now.
That shows lawmakers recognized concern for public safety, freedom of speech and animal welfare.