Commentary: When cameras are outlawed...

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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.

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March, 01, 2011 at 08:37 AM

If the farm is a private space then yes a photographer must get a signed release. Your abiltiy to photograph something ends in the end of public spaces. A photographer must always get a release from his subjects and so why not here as well.

Lucy Dalglish    
Washington, DC  |  March, 01, 2011 at 10:57 AM

Please correct my first name. I don't know where anybody got the name "Judy."

Rachel Allen    
Tampa, Florida  |  March, 01, 2011 at 05:33 PM

In a sense, the farm IS a public place if that farm is producing animal product food for the public; the public has a right to know what goes on with the food they're producing. These farms handling animals should have high enough standards and humane practices that anyone could walk up and observe...with no need for undercover investigators. This whole issue is not going away--with the advent of technology, cell phone cameras and other well-hidden cameras, the photos and videos will keep coming, and the public will continue to be handed these images...might be a good time for all animal product producers to get with the program or get out. The Humane Society of the United States, Mercy for Animals, and In Defense of Animals are three well-monied powerful organizations supported by people who care the welfare and rights of animals--they've won many victories over the past few years, especially since the advent of the technologically advanced cameras and undercover investigations...and the more they accomplish, the more the boomers like me and younger people as well will keep supporting them. Personally, I can't see why anyone would even want to eat animal products, and not just because of the cruelty involved, but also due to the fact that heart disease is an epidemic -- bypass? stent placement? Former president Bill Clinton made the decision to eliminate meat and bypass surgeries from his life...and so have I, and so will many others.

Burlington, Iowa  |  March, 03, 2011 at 12:17 PM

As long as the photo is taken from a public roadway, easement, or place that the public has free access to, no consent is needed to public or distribute the image for editorial purposes. Occasionally I have this issue come up with roadside photography. Standing on public property, I can take all the photos of private property that I choose. The last fellow who tried to forcibly argue that point with me had an unfortunate accident with a truck side mirror.

Luke Thomas    
Central Florida  |  March, 05, 2011 at 02:42 PM

Of course if they pass this to law it will also means farmers will have license to feed the public DOWNER COWS, and get away with putting illegal chemicals or banned antibiotics into their food/drink. This would gravely endanger public safety if this is passed to law because it would suppress evidence (ban making it illegal to gather evidence) to pass on to law enforcement.

Luke Thomas    
Central Florida  |  March, 05, 2011 at 02:43 PM

As long as they sell to consumers-CONSUMERS HAVE THE RIGHT TO KNOW!

Shelley Powers    
St. Louis, MO  |  March, 15, 2011 at 02:47 PM

First, I agree with you: it would be better if farmers just accepted the need for transparency as part of their operations. Farmers and animal welfare (note I said "welfare") folks can work together to ensure the farmers can practice their craft, and the people that buy from the farmers are assured animals are treated humanely. Secondly, of course this bill would be challenged. Challenged and thrown out quickly. Not only that, but bills such as this create an environment where people thing "Ah, ha! The farms do have something to hide!" This isn't good for anyone.

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