A Ban on Farm-Filming?

Animal-welfare activists have scored much publicity success by releasing hidden-camera videos that they say document the mistreatment of animals at farms and slaughterhouses. Now, at the behest of farm interests, lawmakers in Iowa, Florida, and Minnesota are proposing laws seeking to criminalize the making and even possession of such videos. According to the New York Times, the Iowa bill, which has passed the lower house of the legislature in Des Moines:

would make it a crime to produce, distribute or possess photos and video taken without permission at an agricultural facility. It would also criminalize lying on an application to work at an agriculture facility “with an intent to commit an act not authorized by the owner.”

From a libertarian perspective, there’s so much wrong with these bills that it’s hard to know where to begin. Maybe with the bills’ ridiculous overbreadth and over-punitiveness—the Florida proposal, for example, apparently would ban even roadside photography of farms, and send offenders to prison for as much as thirty years. In proposing a (very likely unconstitutional) ban on even the possession of improperly produced videos, the Iowa bill, ironically or otherwise, echoes the tireless legislative efforts of some animal rights activists over the years to ban even possession of videos depicting dogfights and other instances of animal cruelty, for example.

The fact is that we already criminalize too much photo-taking. Depending on where you live, it may be unlawful to snap photos in a busy transit hub, or videotape the police officer who’s conducting an arrest; New Jersey is now considering a law that could ban much picture-taking of children in public places. To be sure, farmers and food processors also have rights deserving of respect, but the core of those rights should be the right to post a notice of “No photography on premises” and then seek civil (as distinct from criminal, in the absence of forcible entry) remedies against visitors or employees who ignore it.

Relatedly, the New York Times invited me to join a “Room for Debate” discussion today on farm animal welfare and my contribution is here. My suggestions that the federal government leave the issue to the states, and that the development of a market in more expensive but humanely raised meat is to be welcomed, brought down predictable outrage from some readers, whose comments included, “The ‘free-market’ litany is a lying crock” and, “It would be a very good thing if meat became unaffordable to most ordinary people.”

Not so relatedly, I am happy to report that the Environmental Protection Agency has finally backed off its position that dairy farmers must build elaborate containment structures to guard against milk spills on the theory that—milk containing butterfat and all—those mishaps should be legally construed as “oil spills.” I had criticized the agency’s interpretation here and here.