Sides speak out in hearing over so-called ag-gag bill

Farming groups told lawmakers Wednesday they need legal protection from people who shoot photos and videos of their private operations.

But critics of so-called ag-gag proposals say they are unnecessary and could violate constitutional rights to free speech.

The debate before the Economic Development Study Committee comes five months after House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, killed a bill that would have made it a crime to secretly shoot photos or video on private property with the goal of harming a business.

Lawmakers instead sent the proposal to the study committee for more deliberation.

At issue in part are videos or images that animal rights groups use to try to discredit farming operations. Sometimes those are obtained when members trespass on private property and other times when they’re on tours or working at the businesses.

On Wednesday, Josh Trenary, the director of business development at the Indiana Pork Producers Association, said the group has policies against animal abuse and is not arguing that such practices shouldn’t be exposed.

“But just as we don’t stand for animal abuse, we don’t support any illegal act like trespassing.” Trenary said.

The pork producers support strengthening laws against trespassing and making it illegal to obtain a job under false pretenses.

“We don’t want our farms to be exploited by any activist's agenda,” Trenary said.

But some of proposals under consideration last year would have gone farther by making it a crime for news organizations to run footage obtained secretly on private property. Lawmakers amended the legislation to strengthen the state’s trespassing laws, a proposal that seemed likely to become law.

But in the last days of the session, a broader version emerged that would have allowed prosecutors to charge individuals with trespassing – a Class A misdemeanor – if they secretly took photos or video on any private property and meant to do the business harm.

Critics said that could have ensnared someone taking photos at a restaurant to show a problem with their meal or an individual capturing images of a loved one’s bruises at nursing home to show to police.

That’s when Bosma killed the bill.

On Wednesday, supporters said protections for farmers are still needed.

The Indiana Farm Bureau’s Amy Cornell said that if a farmer takes the time and expense to put up a fence, it must be seen as a clear boundary line that the farmer does not want crossed.

“People have a right to explore and express their opinions but not at the expense of private-property rights of others,” she said. “Farmers do not need to give up their property rights just because they are farmers.”

But Dave Menzer, lobbyist for the Citizens Action Coalition, told the committee that farmers are not worried about trespassers; they’re worried about what they’ll find.

“We believe the intent of this ag-gag bill from the get-go has been to shield the public from what happens in a factory farm setting,” Menzer said. “Whether it's legal or not, if more people saw how some of these factory farm operations operated, they might change how they purchase their food.”

Steve Key, executive director of the Hoosier State Press Association, said state law already addresses many of the problems that farmers and businesses are raising.

“If the problem is trespassing, then there is criminal trespass and civil trespass, so there are options a property owner has.” said Key. “If a person starts voicing false accusations, there have always been laws against libel.”

But Key said the press association could support legislation that strengthens those laws.

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