Florida State Senator Jim Norman wants to protect farmers from radical animal-rights activists. But while we appreciate his intent and his efforts to bring attention to the issue, his proposed law seems a bit extreme.
Norman, according to news reports from Florida, has proposed a bill that would make it a first-degree felony to photograph a farm without written permission from the owner. His proposal comes in response to recent, well-publicized incidents in which activists have released photographs or videos showing alleged animal abuse on livestock operations. Typically the activists have gained access through false pretenses, or by gaining employment on the operation, only to use their access to collect damaging footage.
The law, according to the news article, would ban any agricultural photography without permission, including roadside shots of animals or farm scenes. Norman is quoted saying he doubts enforcement of the law, if passed, would extend that far.
Animal-rights and civil-rights groups immediately slammed the proposed bill. Judy Dalglish, executive director for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, contends the bill is unconstitutional, and she’s probably right that if passed, it would face stiff challenges in court.
Also quoted in the article, PETA’s general counsel Jeff Kerr says “Mr. Norman should be filing bills to throw the doors of animal producers wide open to show the public where their food comes from rather than criminalizing those who would show animal cruelty.”
While I disagree with his suggested need for new laws, and his implication that animal cruelty is widespread, I agree on one point – that we need more transparency in agricultural production. In reality, the vast majority of livestock operations are well-managed, with owners and workers adhering to high standards of animal care. Consumers do want to know more about their food and where it comes from, and when they have a chance to see and experience modern livestock production first-hand, they typically come away with positive impressions.
For farmers and ranchers, the focus should not be on legislation or other means of concealing their production practices. Instead, they should engage the public with a policy of transparency. First, of course, producers should take steps to assure their animal-care practices meet or exceed commonly accepted standards, train their employees to adhere to those standards and document their policies and practices. The Beef Quality Assurance program provides an excellent avenue for training and documentation in animal welfare and other management considerations. With their houses in order, producers can confidently open their gates to public scrutiny.
Unfortunately, even a well-run operation could be victimized if clandestine photos or videos are taken out of context or even staged to create a sensation. Producers need to carefully evaluate who they hire and monitor employees carefully.
In my years as an agricultural editor, I’ve had the privelege of visiting many farms ranches and feedlots across the country. Without exception and for good reason, the owners and managers took great pride in their operations and in the ways they treat their animals. Sadly, a few isolated incidents have created a fearful environment in which even the best managers worry about how their operation might be portrayed, leading to actions such as the Florida photography bill, which only add to perceptions that producers have something to hide.