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Monday, March 28, 2011

Out of Sight, Out of Mind?

A journalist goes to prison for broadcasting undercover video footage. A worker is persecuted for blowing the whistle on sexual harassment. It’s not the Middle East—it could happen right here in America.
 
In the Middle East and North Africa, people are jeopardizing their lives for freedom, and included among the most basic rights are freedom of expression and of the press. The global struggle for democracy should remind us about the greatness of America and value of free speech here, including in Iowa and Florida.
 
Pigs11 Unfortunately, some lawmakers in those states don’t seem to care much about these rights. They want to shield one industry—animal agribusiness—from open dialogue about animal cruelty, food safety problems, worker abuse, and toxic pollution.
 
A bill in Iowa, HF 589, has already passed the state House of Representatives, and its companion, SF 431, has been introduced in the state Senate. A similar bill, SB 1246, is pending in Florida. The author of the Iowa legislation, Rep. Annette Sweeney, R-Alden, all but proved the theory that she is trying to stop speech and expression, when she was caught on tape by WHO-TV tearing down a display by animal advocates in the state capitol. 
 
These Iowa and Florida bills would ban whistleblowers from exposing illegal and unethical practices at factory farms and slaughter plants. They target legal methods of investigative reporting and would criminalize anyone blowing the whistle on animal cruelty, food safety problems, labor abuses, sexual harassment, or dumping of toxic pollutants. 
 
The Iowa legislation is so extreme it would make it a crime for the news media to even “possess” or “distribute” images of such abuses. The proposals in both states are so overly broad they could prohibit taping of cruel and illegal conditions inside puppy mills and animal fighting operations. They could even turn farms into safe havens for criminal behavior, prohibiting recordings on any property where a handful of agricultural animals are present, even if it’s used for drug trafficking, prostitution, meth labs, dogfighting or cockfighting. 
 
Telling the truth is not a crime; showing the truth should not be a crime. If you live in Iowa or Florida, please contact your state lawmakers today. Tell them we shouldn’t jeopardize our most basic freedoms just to shield the agribusiness industry from public scrutiny on a host of social problems associated with factory farms. 
 
Here’s what some newspaper editorials and columnists are saying about this legislation:

This restraint of free speech cannot be squared with either the U.S. or the Iowa constitutions…The government should not have the power to penalize anyone for publishing or distributing information on issues of public concern. The law should allow the people to see what happens in these facilities and to judge for themselves whether what goes on is right or wrong.—Editorial, Des Moines Register, March 19, 2011 

This is a bad bill overall. It overreaches and would serve to stifle valuable whistle-blower activity, and could even backfire and hurt responsible operators…It would do more harm than good.—Editorial, Cedar Rapids Gazette, March 24, 2011

It also begs a question of the slaughterhouse and puppy mill owners lobbying for it: What's going on inside the facilities that you would go to such lengths to prevent people from seeing?—Rekha Basu, Des Moines Register, March 25, 2011

We do expect livestock production to be humane and lawful. We also expect safe food. And with all the gaps in our government inspection dragnet, we just might need amateurs with cameras.—Todd Dorman, Cedar Rapids Gazette, March 24, 2011

Still, why is punishment necessary for the photographer if the farm owner has nothing to hide? Whistleblowers can use photos, for example, to document conditions that might be detrimental to the food supply. That would be in the public interest.—Editorial, Treasure Coast Palm, March 26, 2011

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