SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Senate gave a preliminary nod Tuesday to a bill intended to prohibit trespassing or obtaining employment at agricultural operations with the intent of recording images or sound.
"Basically, it's a trespassing bill," said Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville. The Senate voted 19-7 Tuesday to send HB187 to a final vote in the Senate.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. John Mathis, R-Vernal, targets people who intentionally seek employment in agricultural operations "who have no reason to be there except espionage, to spy on the operation," Hinkins said.
Hinkins said even in cases of domestic violence or child abuse, no one has the right to hide cameras in the home of suspected perpetrator.
"This is a property rights question," Hinkins said.
The bill establishes misdemeanor penalties for people who obtain access to agricultural operations under false pretenses or records images or sound of agricultural operations without the owner's consent.
Hinkins said the bill attempts to push back against animal rights groups bent on harming the livestock industry, he said.
"It's the vegetarian people. That's what's trying to kill the animal industry," he said.
Hinkins said there is a demand for beef and other products that result from livestock production.
"Every time you go to McDonald's that's what hamburgers are. It's a dead cow," Hinkins said.
On ranches, livestock is "raised and slaughtered and ate. That's what happens on a ranching operation."
Some senators questioned whether legitimate whistleblowers could be negatively impacted by the legislation if they bring to light a food safety or animal cruelty issue.
Hinkins said the bill targets people hired under false pretenses who are "working for activist companies."
If employees witness animal cruelty or practices that could compromise food safety, they should contact the state veterinarian to investigate, he said.
"There's other ways to do it instead of hiding cameras or modifying the films," he said.
The bill has attracted national attention from animal rights groups. Earlier in the legislative session, television and motion picture actress Katherine Heigl sent a mass e-mail to the Utah Senate urging their defeat of the bill.
Heigl, who resides in Utah with her husband, wrote: "This bill makes our state's agricultural community seem desperate to hide illegal and inhumane treatment of animals from the public."
Hinkins bristled at any implication that the bill's sponsor, would have anything to do with animal cruelty. Mathis is a veterinarian.
"He don't abuse animals. He saves them," Hinkins said.