A so-called “ag gag” bill is back in the Indiana General Assembly, and critics say it still has the same problems that prevented lawmakers from passing it last session.
Senate Bill 101 is designed to limit trespassing on farms, opponents believe it is an attack on whistleblowers and could impede free speech.
Senator Travis Holdman, R-Markle, the author of the bill, says the legislation is meant to protect people like David Hardin.
Hardin owns about 12,000 pigs at his farm in Danville. He calls it a small family farm but technically, it is a Confined Animal Feeding Operation or CAFO, “which is – in certain circles – is kind of a – well it’s a four letter word,” Hardin says. “But it just strictly designates how many animals you have on your farm at one time.”
While Hardin’s livestock is contained in a small area, he says his pigs are kept at a comfortable temperature and supplied with food and water.
Hardin says the nature of agriculture has changed and he understands that images people see of an industrial operation might be unsettling.
“A lot of people, when they think of classical American agriculture they think of maybe a Norman Rockwell-painted red barn. It doesn’t look like that today,” Hardin says. “But we try and use technology to actually care for the animal better and give them a better life than they would have otherwise had.”
Hardin supports SB 101 because he says it gives producers like him extra protection.
“In this day and age it doesn’t take much for a producer to be put out of business if they get some very bad publicity about things that have gone on at their farm,” he says. “It may not be something that is necessarily bad, but to the public today that hasn’t grown up with production agriculture and doesn’t understand what they’re looking at. It may not look like something good, but it could be a veterinary approved practice – a best management practice that we have on the farms today.”
Bill Creates A New Crime: “Agricultural Mischief”
Senate Bill 101 is similar to many bills put forth across the country that are modeled after legislation promoted by the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC calls their boilerplate bill the Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act. It criminalizes “entering an animal or research facility to take pictures by photograph, video camera, or other means with the intent to commit criminal activities or defame the facility or its owner.”
SB 101 creates a new crime called “Agricultural Mischief,” which is similarly defined and enhances penalties for trespassing on agricultural facilities. It would also raise the penalty for criminal trespassing if certain levels of “pecuniary loss” result from the criminal trespass.
Senator Holdman declined to be interviewed but testifying in front of a legislative committee last week he said the bill was necessary to protect Indiana’s agricultural industry.
“We have got to protect our farms and the agricultural operations in this state, which is a huge economic development driver in the state of Indiana and to protect those folks from those who would actually come on property and attempt to do harm to the operation,” Holdman said.
However, those against the measure, testified consumers should be able to see how their food is produced.
Erin Huang is the state director of the Humane Society of the United States. She told lawmakers that SB 101 is designed to “bully whistleblowers.”
“So instead of trying to hide what’s happening on these farms, they should be more transparent,” Huang says. “But that’s now what’s happening. They’re pushing back harder to try to keep us in the dark.”
Bill Elicits Concerns About Free Speech
A version of the bill failed last year because legislators said it was too broad. Senator Holdman amended the legislation to make concessions for the media, but detractors say it could still impede free speech.
Senator Mark Stoops, D-Bloomington, is on the committee hearing the bill. He says the current version is even worse because the penalties are more severe.
“This is definitely a freedom of speech issue,” Stoops says. “In this current bill there’s not even any language that if somebody actually documents illegal activity and turns it over to the authorities that that’s any protection. They’re still subject to a felony charge and time in prison.”
Holdman testified that Indiana’s shield law would protect the media and those looking to expose illegal activity.
Indiana is one of 39 states in the country that have media shield laws.
While some states’ shield laws protect all information that a journalist covers in the course of their work, Anthony Fargo, Director of the Center For International Media Law And Policy Studies, says Indiana’s law is not that broad.
“Indiana’s Law only protects a journalist from having to reveal the name of a confidential source that they have used in news gathering,” Fargo says. “So I’m not really clear on how the senator believes that that law would actually even apply to an ‘ag gag’situation.”
Fargo says the bill raises disturbing policy questions about discouraging whistle-blowing in one specific industry.
“If anything I think sound public policy would say we should encourage people to expose unethical and illegal and unsafe behavior in these types of establishments,” he says.