Sarah Hubbart, Communications Director at Animal Agriculture Alliance, blogging for Meatingplace.com, wrote, “Iowa’s governor signed a hotly-debated bill into law that makes it a crime for individuals or organizations to fraudulently gain access to a farm with the intent to cause harm.

The law doesn’t specifically ban the “undercover videos” that animal rights groups use to promote their cause, but it could cause the activists who obtain employment on farms under false pretenses to think twice.

The new law specifies that “A person is guilty of agricultural production facility fraud if the person willfully does any of the following: a. Obtains access to an agricultural production facility by false pretenses. b. Makes a false statement or representation as part of an application or agreement to be employed at an agricultural production facility, if the person knows the statement to be false, and makes the statement with an intent to commit an act not authorized by the owner of the agricultural production facility, knowing that the act is not authorized.”

The sponsor of the bill, Representative Annette Sweeney, said, ”This bill will ensure everyone who works on farms is honest about animal care and has their best interest in mind."

Governor Terry Brandstad agreed and signed it soon after it landed on his desk

As a journalist, I feel strongly both ways about that bill.  I like the intent, even though I’m sure Iowa already has laws against willful misrepresentation on employment applications and fraud.  Gaining access to an ag facility of any kind with the intent to do or promote harm ought to be a punishable offense with serious consequences.  Rumors are rampant that some of the animal abuse videos that have surfaced in the past few years were either staged elsewhere, the result of the videographer encouraging employees to abuse the animals under their care, or the result of some very sophisticated and selective editing.

No matter how “animal rights” activists gain access to an ag facility, their efforts to encourage such behavior or wait to expose it for maximum publicity for the advancement of their social directives are worse than the habitual abuser in my estimation.  To promote a lie to further your aims is an intellectual and moral dishonesty of the worst kind.  Those activists who claim to know better and try to seize the moral high ground by wading through the swamp are despicable.

At the same time, there are constitutional guarantees of a free and unfettered press and the Supreme Court has consistently defended that right, even as exercised by the vile people and organizations. 

Almost half a century ago, Robert Peck, staff director of the American Bar Association Commission on Public Understanding About the Law, and an author, editor, and lecturer on constitutional law, wrote about the Tinker v. Des Moines School District Supreme Court decision.  It was a case that looked at middle school children’s right to protest the Viet Nam war by wearing black arm bands in school.

Peck wrote, “Former Supreme Court Justice William Brennan described the rights of free speech and a free press contained within the First Amendment as embodying ‘a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.’ The Constitution accepts criticism of high government officials because, as the late Justice Hugo Black put it, ‘no country can live in freedom where its people can be made to suffer physically or financially for criticizing their government, its actions, or its officials.’”

In other words, you don’t have to like everything that’s published by any group or entity and you certainly don’t have to agree with it.  The Constitution absolutely protects the right to free speech, even if it is inflammatory drivel.

Co-existing with what was published in the 1960’s was a challenge; there were thousands of printed publications and many of them were perched on the outside edge of respectability.  It’s even tougher today with the advent of blogging, Facebooking, Twittering and all the other social media offering a public forum to tens of thousands of people.  Money, literacy or the slightest hint of intelligence are no longer barriers.  If you can ‘keyboard,’ you can publish.  Good spelling and grammar, and proof of a coherent thought process are not requirements.

I’ve seen some of the most idiotic and poorly thought out nonsense written for public consumption.  I’m sure you’ve seen much of the same trash.  What makes it interesting is well-educated, thoughtful Americans will look at the same story and disagree on whether it’s a brilliant dissection of a public issue or thoughtless and sorely misguided yellow journalism.

So, should those animal rights crazies be singled out and prosecuted for trying to expose egregious cases of animal abuse with a law aimed at their activities?  No.  Should they be slapped hard to the fullest extent of the existing laws covering libel, slander and willful misrepresentation?  I’ll volunteer to serve on that jury and I would like to see an old-fashioned ‘hanging’ judge presiding over the case.

That these undercover agents can still slink through the cracks and gain employment on ranches, harvesting facilities and processing plants doesn’t speak well of the activities of some human resources departments.  I’ve heard people in the ag industry say, “If he can fog a mirror, I’ll hire him” and on the processing side, there have been proven cases of illegal short cuts in hiring practices.  Stricter hiring policies, better training and improved oversight can cure almost all the remaining ills.

Slamming the barn door shut when the public is asking for the transparency of a screen door sends the wrong message and plays into the hands of activists who will say to a suddenly more receptive audience, “They must have something truly awful to hide if they have to pass laws like that.”

Let me ask the most obvious question, too.  If Chicago based MFA or Florida centered PETA sends an undercover rep to Iowa and sneaks a video back to the home office before the expose, what good is the law?  Certainly the videographer isn’t going to voluntarily return to accept his prison sentence.

We don’t have anything to hide.  More and more of the good guys in this business are practicing an open door policy and discovering that tours of the old ranch can actually make converts out of the suspicious. Survey after survey consistently finds the public innately trusts farmers and ranchers.  It’s only the bad guys in agriculture and every other human pursuit who have something to hide and they must be found and driven out of business as quickly as possible.

Chuck Jolley is a free lance writer, based in Kansas City, who covers a wide range of ag industry topics for Vance Publishing.