Opposing sides dig in as Legislature considers ban on secret farm taping

2011-05-21T22:35:00Z 2011-05-21T23:02:05Z Opposing sides dig in as Legislature considers ban on secret farm tapingBy MIKE WISER, Globe Gazette Des Moines Bureau Mason City Globe Gazette

DES MOINES — Iowa is on the verge of becoming the first state to criminalize recording farm sights and sounds without prior permission from the farmer or business owner.

It’s become a hot-button issue in the waning days of the legislative session, one that pits environmental and animal rights activists against farmers and agribusiness interests.

On one side are the activists who surreptitiously record how animals are kept or slaughtered on farms. On the other side are the farm owners who don’t want them to do that.

The activists say their actions are protected under the First Amendment. The farmers say it’s an invasion of privacy made intentionally to damage the industry.

“They want to hurt an important part of our economy,” said Sen. Tom Rielly, D-Oskaloosa. “These people don’t want us to have eggs; they don’t want people to eat meat.”

Rielly is working on an amendment to the legislation that has already passed the House with bipartisan support. He said it will likely get a hearing in the Senate still this session.

If it passes there and the House agrees to the amended Senate version, it goes to the governor for his signature.

Spokesman Tim Albrecht said Gov. Terry Branstad will wait until he sees the final version of the bill before he lends it support. Still, he said, Branstad “believes undercover filming is a problem that should be addressed, yes.”


But how lawmakers address the issue will likely end up in court, unless they decide the best way to address the issue is to drop it all together.

Similar legislation has previously moved in the Colorado, Texas and Missouri statehouses, but it has never become law.

This year, lawmakers in Florida, Minnesota and Iowa have proposed bills, but only Iowa’s and Minnesota’s versions are still alive.

And each time legislation moves, animal rights groups move in. In Iowa’s case, Chicago-based Mercy for Animals came first, then came the better-known People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

Both groups held news conferences where they screened graphic videos taken by undercover group members at factory farms. Both groups urged lawmakers not to curtail their ability to make such videos. Both also said legal action was an option.

Dan Mathews, senior vice president for PETA, said, “With lawmakers in other ag states wanting these bills to die, the ongoing debate in Iowa makes it appear like the farmers there have more to hide.

“That doesn’t seem like a sensible promotion of Iowa agriculture,” he said.

Mathews then helped set up an email from Republican strategist Mary Matalin that went to House Republican leadership on Thursday.

“I’m sorry to hear that House File 589, which would criminalize filming on farms, is still getting pushed along in Iowa,” Matalin’s letter begins. After a few more sentences, she concludes: “If House File 589 succeeds, it may well single Iowa out as the state with something to hide, which I know can’t be the case.”

Rielly said it’s not about hiding anything.

“What we’re aiming at is stopping these groups that go out and gin up campaigns that they use to raise money by trying to give the agriculture industry a bad name,” he said.

Ronald Birkenholz, spokesman for the Iowa Pork Producers Association, said his organization supports the legislation because it helps protect producers from unscrupulous attacks.

Heather Lilienthal, spokeswoman for the Iowa Farm Bureau, said her organization’s support is based on the belief that it will help farmers, “but we won’t have anything new to add until we see the final version of the bill.”


It’s the language in the final bill that is turning out to be tricky.

Rebecca Zietlow, a visiting professor of constitutional law at the University of Iowa, said the main problem with what lawmakers are considering has to do with prior restraint.

“The courts have generally said we should let the speech come out and then let the chips fall where they may,” she said.

For example, nothing would prevent the farmer from going after the activist for libel if it turns out the activist had doctored or staged a recording. But to stop the activist from being able to report what is going on behind closed doors probably wouldn’t fly.

Mark Kende, director of the Drake University Constitutional Law Center, agreed.

He said businesses have several legal avenues to minimize the chance that someone would turn on a video camera in their facility, such as having them sign a clause upon hiring that they won’t.

But, he said, there have been few instances where the courts have opted to keep someone quiet. National security, such as giving out troop movements, is one. Endangering the lives of people is another. But beyond those, the examples are few and far between.

Copyright 2015 Mason City Globe Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(6) Comments

  1. Arthur
    Report Abuse
    Arthur - May 28, 2011 10:06 am
    More laws are not needed. Use existing trespass and libel laws to prosecute miscreants.

    It is human nature to wonder what is going on behind the doors of a government-cloaked industry. Shades of Upton Sinclair.


    There is a balance between the privacy of the business of ranchers and protection of consumers. It is just good business to provide ethical treatment of animals over which God has given us dominion.
  2. teebird
    Report Abuse
    teebird - May 26, 2011 10:30 pm
    I know farming/livestock production is not a clean, pain free, pretty industry. Some take all measures to be humane and minimize the brutality, some take short cuts. To make them immune from scrutiny is pandering to corporate agriculture who may not always have safety as a major concern.
  3. familyfarmer2
    Report Abuse
    familyfarmer2 - May 22, 2011 9:13 pm
    Contrary to the statements in this article, similar bills have been in existence for more than a decade in Kansas, Nebraska and Montana..with no lawsuits.

    There has never been a food safety issue uncovered by these fake videos, animal rights activist falsify and cut and paste videos to push their agenda to end animal agriculture...and i can send you the articles that proove the videos were doctored...
  4. JB Johnson of Britt
    Report Abuse
    JB Johnson of Britt - May 22, 2011 3:07 pm
    it's called a back ground check on who you hire. Don't run to the state if you hire a guy who burns you later
  5. YouDon'tSaaay
    Report Abuse
    YouDon'tSaaay - May 22, 2011 12:59 pm
    Farmers say videos have been edited or doctored to cast scrupulous farm operations in a bad light. I have read every article on this topic in the Globe and the Des Moines Register. But I have yet to read details of the alleged phony videos. Libel laws already give recourse to farms damaged by such phony videos. Personally, I feel undercover investigation is a healthy thing, given the lax regulatory culture. Does anyone think the only rotten CAFO in Iowa was the DeCoster egg operation?
  6. Bradford
    Report Abuse
    Bradford - May 22, 2011 7:08 am
    Talk about protecting the criminals. Why would you need a ban on this? Follow the law and they have nothing to record and report. This is wrong. We are talking about food safety and protection of the entire food chain. Instead of scheduled appts from the usda that tell the farmers when they will be there. Let the private sector do the job that our govt does not. And It is not just peta that does this. This is our food chain do not protect any possible cover ups.
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