The Utah Legislature is close to following an ill-conceived national trend that would, in effect, shield the agriculture industry from whistle-blowers or others who might be aware of legitimate abuses — a special exemption that is not warranted.
Earlier this week, Iowa became the first state in the nation to pass a bill that would make it a crime to sneak onto a farming operation and record video or photos of animal abuse. The bill now awaits Gov. Terry Branstad's decision to either sign or veto.
But at least that bill makes allowances for someone who legitimately works for a farm to report abuses. The bill that recently passed the Utah House and now awaits Senate action does not. It would make it a crime to record an image or sound from any Utah agricultural operation after being told not to do so by the owner, or to leave a recording device in place without the owner's consent. An employee who uncovered real abuses could be prosecuted for taking photos against the owner's consent, rather than protected for uncovering a crime. However rare such a thing may be, the bill is an over-reach that could potentially keep the public in the dark about health or safety violations. It deserves to be tabled.
Six more states — Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska and New York — have considered similar laws. We understand the furor. Some animal-rights advocates have gone to great lengths to publicize what they consider to be animal abuses by trespassing, recording and publishing one-sided views of practices. Agriculture is vital to the nation's economy and food supply. Many animal rights advocates push a narrow agenda that defines abuse in ways that don't enjoy widespread support. Many of them would prefer to outlaw the consumption of animals or animal products all together.
But trespassing already is illegal. Anyone with experience in the news business knows he or she can't just walk into a private business and begin taking photos or video without the owner's permission. Viewers are familiar with seeing footage of suspicious business owners closing their doors on news cameras.
The bill says a person who takes unauthorized photos or recordings of an agricultural operation would be guilty of "interference," but that would stretch the meaning of that word beyond reason. An "interference" might better be defined as a false claim against such an operation, which already could be attacked civilly, through a lawsuit, or through trespassing or libel laws.
However, the bill's main flaw is that it sets agricultural operations above all other businesses and industries with special protections against scrutiny. Other industries would be happy to make similar claims about their own importance and about potential sabotage by enemies, but they may not have as many friends in the Legislature. Why should agriculture be given special protections?
HB187 proves it isn't always smart to copycat trends in other states. In an otherwise reasonable and calm legislative session, this one is a real stinker.