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DES MOINES, Iowa
The Senate Agriculture Committee approved a bill Wednesday aimed at preventing animal rights activists from getting hired on farms to secretly record what they believe is the mistreatment of livestock.
The bill would make it illegal to secretly record and distribute videos and punish those who take jobs on farms only to gain access to record animals' treatment. Penalties include up to five years in prison and fines of up to $7,500.
The committee approved the bill on a voice vote, while the Republican-led House approved the measure 65-27 on March 17.
Critics of the bill say it would have a chilling effect on free speech and the question of whether it is constitutional could be challenged in court, something that could prove expensive for the state.
"Our primary concern is the constitutionality of the bill," said Adam Mason of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement. "It seems like it's going to limit free speech of individuals."
The bill's manager, Democratic Sen. Tom Rielly of Oskaloosa, agreed the measure needs more work before it goes to the Senate floor for a vote.
But Rielly said he still believes the bill is necessary to prevent animal cruelty. Some animal rights groups film abuse of livestock without reporting it and then use it to gain publicity, Rielly said.
"If somebody is truly a whistleblower they need to blow the whistle, and that's what we're trying to do," Rielly said. "If somebody is in an egg-laying facility and they see an animal that's in distress or being abused in some way they need to get that reported. And the fact is, I've read several stories where just the opposite has occurred. They're filming it, they're making videos, they're not reporting the abuse and six weeks later it's being used for fundraising."
But Mason said while no one in his group has used the tactics outlawed by the bill, members have experienced frustration with reports of animal abuse or other alleged violations not being investigated in a timely manner.
"Our members have reported potential violations outside of factory farms, whether that's manure spills, dead hogs being left outside of a factory farm for weeks, and a lot of times those problems don't get taken care of right away," Mason said. "Sometimes simply reporting a claim of animal abuse isn't enough because the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Agriculture are so understaffed."