By Steve Key
Hoosier State Press Association
With the demise of S.B. 648 in North Carolina on July 26, all ag-gag/anti-whistleblower laws introduced in 11 state legislatures failed to become law in 2013.
Included among those bills was S.B. 373 in Indiana, authored by State Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle.
Other states with bills defeated this year were Arkansas, California, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Vermont and Wyoming.
With that many states considering the issue, you might think the legislation originated with a groundswell of support of farmers, like my grandfather who had acreage in Tennessee.
You would be wrong.
The bills were inspired by the American Legislative Exchange Council, an entity overwhelmingly supported by corporations and their foundations.
They create model bills that are then filed in state legislatures by the 2,000 state representatives and senators who are members of this entity.
The goal of ag-gag legislation is to stop the videotaping of poultry, hog and cattle operations.
Filming can raise questions of potential animal cruelty or food safety issues.
Organizers expanded the proposal to include mining and manufacturing entities in an attempt to garner greater support.
As it wound through the legislature, Indiana’s bill at times made it a crime to disseminate farming video without the permission of agribusiness owners and added criminal defamation to the list of laws county prosecutors needed to enforce.
HSPA testified against these infringements on the First Amendment.
Lawmakers modified the version passed by the Indiana House of Representatives to address only the issue of trespassing and gaining employment through false representations.
HSPA didn’t oppose that version since the association neither recommends reporters illegally enter private property nor that they get hired by companies they are investigating.
That version didn’t satisfy the author, who changed the bill in conference committee, broadening its scope to the point that Speaker of House Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, pulled the bill during its House debate.
While the bill died on the final night of the legislature, the issue may be resurrected for the next legislative session.
The subject was appointed to this summer’s Interim Study Committee on Economic Development, chaired by State Sen. Jim Buck, R-Kokomo.
Apparently it’s not enough that businesses can file a civil lawsuit for defamation if a video falsely portrays its operations.
It’s not enough that criminal trespass can be pursued if someone sneaks onto agribusiness property.
It’s not enough that there already is a law making it illegal for someone to gain employment under false pretenses.
Fortunately, there is a coalition of concerned parties that oppose the ag-gag concept and will be prepared to testify at the summer committee meeting.
Along with HSPA, other media entities, environmental groups, labor organizations, and animal-rights organizations all oppose the chilling impact of ag-gag legislation.
The public gains not just from seeing video of illegal activity. It also benefits from reports that show currently legal operations that arguably should be considered for regulation or updates in law.
Laws changed on formerly legal activities concerning child labor, race discrimination, treatment of women in mental institutions, and food safety after journalists shone a light on what was happening.
Steve Key is executive director and general counsel for HSPA.