Daryn McBeth, agribiz lobbyist: People who photograph farms should be felons
It was just a week ago that lawmakers unveiled a new bill aimed at making it harder for the public to know what goes on in farms, slaughterhouses, and puppy mills. But in that week, the bill has come in for a torrent of abuse.
It's not hard to see why. The bill's authors are so intent on keeping prying eyes from seeing how the proverbial sausage is made that they've created a whole set of new crimes.
If the bill passes, food-safety watchdogs, animal-cruelty activists, and industry whistle-blowers could be hit with exotic-sounding criminal charges like "animal facility tampering," "animal facility fraud," and "animal facility interference."
It's the last category that's especially jaw-dropping: The bill would make it a criminal offense to take a picture of a farm without the owner's permission. More than that, it would make it a criminal offense just to possess a picture, video, or audio recording of a farm, even if someone else produced it.
Needless to say, this kind of flies in the face of First Amendment law as most people understand it. The bill has been widely ridiculed in the press, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota has deemed the bill unconstitutional.
So maybe it's no surprise that the authors of the bill, Rep. Rod Hamilton and Sen. Doug Magnus, wouldn't speak to City Pages to defend their hideous and unloved offspring.
But if the legislators who wrote the bill don't want to be seen standing too close to it, at least one voice is willing to rise in defense of the proposition that our food sources should be shrouded in secrecy: the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council, the powerful agricultural lobbying group that helped craft the bill in the first place.
Daryn McBeth, the council's president, told City Pages the bill is necessary because existing laws just don't seem to be adequate to keep pictures of what goes on at farms from reaching the public.
"Minnesota has trespassing laws, but that's proving not to be a strong enough deterrent," McBeth said.
Besides, trespassing laws don't do anything to protect against farm workers who take pictures of their own farm's operations.
But McBeth said while the bill is meant to discourage people from documenting what happens on farms without the farm owner's permission, it's not intended to restrict the flow of information to the public.
"The agriculture industry is in agreement about the need for transparency," he said. "We don't want to take anything away from transparency or First Amendment."
The problem, McBeth said, is that guerrilla documentarians might take pictures or video that don't, by his measure, accurately represent what goes on on a farm. He couldn't name any instances of that happening in Minnesota, though.
"It can sort of look like a solution in search of a problem," McBeth conceded. "But we're thinking of it more as preventative."
Pressed on what social harm there is in people documenting the treatment of farm animals, McBeth took another tack:
"There are many contagious diseases that can be transmitted by people who are coming onto farms to make these recordings," he said. "If they've been on other livestock operations, they could be tracking diseases on their shoes."
So that's why Minnesota needs this law?
"That's one of the reasons."
At the end of the interview, McBeth suggested that even though he supports a bill that could make photographing farms a felony, the bill shouldn't necessarily be taken as something that anyone wants to be a law.
"Neither we nor the authors expect to pass these bills," McBeth said. "It was intended to start a conversation."
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