Ag Gag in Indiana: Agriculture protection or gag on whistle blowing debated by Hoosier lawmakers

Agriculture operations and criminal trepass hot topic

By Rick Yencer

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA (NEWS) -  A new crime called agricultural mischief is getting lots of attention at the Indiana General Assembly from the Farm Bureau, Citizens Action Coalition and other groups interested in private property rights and the public's right to know.

Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle, a former county prosecutor, rolled out a bill somewhat like the "ag gag" bill last year that prohibited video and photo taking of farms and businesses without permission of owners.

The new bill expands state trespass laws to protect farming operations, and private property rights besides outlawing trespassers who could harm or create financial hardship on farms.

Holdman told the Muncie Free Press there's no provisions about video or photo in the proposed law, that deals primarily with the issue of mischief and trespass. But the criminal provisions for both misdemeanor and felony charges remain at the discretion of a county prosecutor and local court judge.

This talking points do mention instances of animal rights activists filming legal farm operations with intent to misrepresent the farm and damage its business. And he pointed out government and law enforcement already has oversight over agricultural operations.

 For those worried about the public's right to know, Holdman said he would offer an exclusion for those who discover illegal activity and he said more amendments were coming during a Senate committee hearing on Tuesday.

The hearing last Tuesday during the polar vortex attracted plenty of agriculture, media and other citizen based interests.

And Sen. Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, Senate minority leader, had a problem with creating criminal sanctions for farm trespass.

"I don't understand why there is not provisions under existing law," said Lanane, also a lawyer.

Katrina Hall, government affairs director for the Indiana Farm Bureau, said the bill protected farm property against trespassers and was not an attempt to limit free speech.

The Farm Bureau spoke strongly about protecting property rights and also protecting farmers from financial harm by those who break the law.

Hall acknowledged some language might be amended to make the law more clear.Kerwin Olson, executive director of the Citizens Action Coalition, said the bill was no more than a new version designed to protect factory farms, and hide food production behind a veil of secrecy.

"This bill would make it a felony crime to expose unethical, inhumane and unsafe practices at factory farms to the media and public," said Olson. "Discouraging whistle blowers and others from coming forward threatens food safety, worker and animal welfare, free speech and the environment."

Steve Key, attorney for the Hoosier State Press Association, testified before the Senate Corrections and Criminal Law committee about the bill having a chilling impact on public debate on agricultural operations.

 He pointed to Upton Sinclair's book, The Jungle, that led to federal law regulating the operation of slaughterhouses.

Key also said there might be constitutional problems with vague language that results in criminal charges.