‘Free speech’ is a broad term that encompasses a lot of things. But at its essence, it means the right to speak up for what you feel is right. That includes the right to call out practices you see as fundamentally wrong. But that right could be taken away from would-be whistleblowers in Iowa, thanks to the passage of House File 589 – referred to as the ‘Ag Gag’ Bill – and many are predicting that it could devastate the agriculture industry if it becomes law.
According to the Des Moines Register, a previous version of this bill made undercover photography or videotaping of farms and production operations illegal – but with the Supreme Court having already approved animal abuse exposure as protected under free speech, that bill surely would have been shot down. So instead of scrapping the bill altogether, a pair of Iowa senators resubmitted it with a new method but the same end goal:
Sen. Joe Seng, D-Davenport and Sen. Tim Kapucian, R-Keystone, worked on a provision that scrapped the House’s language and substituted a provision that does not deal with recordings.
The Senate version doesn’t address audio or video recordings issues. Instead, it would create a new crime: Agricultural production facility fraud.
A person who obtained access to a facility by false pretenses or lies on a job application with the intent to commit an act not authorized by the owner could be found guilty and face serious or aggravated misdemeanor charges.
Most food production facilities aren’t about to blatantly authorize its employees videotaping examples of animal abuse or health code violations – that means that anyone exposing such unchecked bad behavior could face prosecution.
RELATED STORIES FROM FOOD AND DRINK DIGITAL
- Australia Investigating Cruelty to Cattle in Indonesia
- Monsanto Wins Case Against Organic Growers
- What's the Deal with Organic Certification?
- CLICK HERE TO READ THE LATEST EDITION OF FOOD & DRINK DIGITAL
The bill is now in the hands of Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, who has the power to either veto or sign House File 589 into law. Already organizations like the ASPCA, the Humane Society, and Mercy for Animals (who were intrinsic to November’s Sparboe Farms animal cruelty takedown) are banding together in opposition of the bill. Nathan Runkle, executive director of Mercy for Animals, told reporters:
“This flawed and misdirected legislation could set a dangerous precedent nationwide by throwing shut the doors to industrial factory farms and allowing animal abuse, environmental violations, and food contamination issues to flourish undetected, unchallenged, and unaddressed.”
Iowa legal scholars and organizations like the ACLU have also weighed in on the Ag Gag bill, with the prevailing thought being that it threatens free speech through “prior restraint” and could seriously damage the public’s trust in the food industry. Meanwhile, as the Des Moines Register reports, Iowa Senate members who voted in opposition to the bill have also spoken out about what it could mean for the state:
“Passing this bill will put a big red question mark stamped on every pork chop, every, chicken wing, every steak, and every egg produced in this state because it will raise the question of what do you got to hide,” [Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames] said.
From The Jungle to Fast Food Nation to the grainy portrayals of abuse and mishandling that pop up on Dateline or 20/20 all too often, whistleblowers are a crucial part of the food industry. Their dedication to taking what goes on behind the scenes and bringing into the public eye ultimately makes the industry safer and better for everyone. Gov. Branstad has until the end of the week to make a decision, and with such pressure from both sides it must be a difficult one. But in a time when consumers are already doubtful about the safety and integrity of their food and even official agencies are under scrutiny and facing cutbacks, it seems to us like shutting out the industry’s independent checks and balances would be an unwise decision for Iowa – and set a dangerous precedent for the future.