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Editorials

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editorial

Legislative mischief

Is this bill a gag?

Tuesday afternoon, there were reports that the Senate Corrections and Criminal Law Committee was going to hustle the “ag gag” bill and other proposed measures through without giving opponents, who might have still been snowbound, an opportunity to appear.

At the delayed opening Senate session, which barely had a quorum, President Pro Tem David Long announced that no votes would be taken by committees that afternoon.

It would be more fitting to rush this kind of legislation through under the cover of darkness. Surely it will not withstand the light of full and open debate.

The 2014 version of what is officially known as Senate Bill 101 was introduced by the senator who sponsored last year’s version, Travis Holdman of Markle. He told the committee the bill is designed to “protect our farms and agricultural operations” by creating a new kind of crime – “agricultural mischief.” Though last year’s bill specifically prohibited photographing or videotaping farming activity, this year’s even more bizarre measure would allow farming operators to prohibit any kind of activity that might be fiscally damaging to the institution.

Inspired by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a corporate-controlled group responsible for writing model legislation, bills like this one have been introduced around the country as a response to instances where employees, citizens or animal-rights advocates have used pictures to document instances of animal abuse.

This is not about Timmy and Lassie and Gramps herding the family cow into the barn with too big a stick. This bill and those like it are a reaction to stories about agribusinesses engaged in systematically cruel treatment of animals or violating health standards. Maybe there’s no one in Indiana kicking and stomping turkeys, or castrating and cutting the tails off unsedated baby pigs directly in front of their clearly agitated mothers, or feeding dead piglets back to their littermates, as videos taken in other states have depicted. Maybe there are no health violations that inspectors miss. Maybe everything is just as ethical and legal and sanitary as it ought to be.

But if so, what’s the big deal? Why did senators who braved the icy roads to start the short legislative session already a day behind schedule spend part of their first evening talking about a law that asserts rights everyone already has?

Just like the rest of us, farmers, big and small, do not have to allow photographers to tramp through the field, bust open the barn door, or Photoshop pictures of cute animals being tortured. There are trespassing and privacy and libel laws that provide redress for those kinds of things.

No, this is about giving farm operators and their corporate partners extra rights, and special powers. This version of ag gag would even give farm operators the right to define what they consider a felony.

In actuality, as Erin Huang, the state director of the Humane Society, explained at the hearing, ag gag is an attempt to intimidate agricultural employees or others who could use their smartphones to blow the whistle on animal abuse.

Ag gag is a clear violation of the First Amendment, but this time it’s not about scaring the big, bad mass media. This bill is about shutting up people like you, who see something they think the rest of us should know about. It is an attempt to pass a special law for “special” people, so that the rest of us can be kept silent, or blissfully ignorant.

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