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DES MOINES, Iowa The investigations director of an animal rights group said it's a "strong possibility" his organization will sue if a bill that criminalizes secret recording on farms becomes law.
The legislation, which passed on a 66-27 vote Thursday with a few Democrats joining Republicans, creates new criminal and civil penalties for anyone convicted of tampering or interfering with property associated with a livestock or crop operation.
Penalties range from misdemeanors to felonies. Crimes range from surreptitiously making a record of any sound or image at animal facilities to intentionally damaging equipment or injuring livestock.
Supporters of the legislation say it's needed to stop activists from disrupting farm operations and using selectively edited video or photographs to put the agriculture industry in a bad light.
Opponents say the measure puts a chill on whistle-blowers who would otherwise report the inhumane and illegal treatment of animals at some operations.
"We are completely concerned about the health and well-being of our animals on our farms, and if we have individuals coming onto our farms and filming and not telling us they're there, we are sincerely worried about the health and biosecurity," said Rep. Annette Sweeney, R- Alden, the bill's floor manager.
"When they sensationalize that journalism, they're doing bonafide people a discredit because a lot of those videos have been edited and a lot of those videos have been staged."
Dan Hauff, investigations director for Chicago-based Mercy for Animals, said the law is likely unconstitutional under the First Amendment. He said it would inhibit investigative journalists from reporting on animal cruelty, environmental hazards and food safety issues on farms. He said the organization might bring litigation if the bill becomes law, but he hoped it wouldn't make it that far.
Mercy for Animals held a news conference at the Marriott in downtown Des Moines about an hour after the bill passed out of the House. The conference included an eight-minute video that showed live chicks being tossed into grinders, baby pigs being slammed against concrete floors and beef cattle flopping around in pools of their own blood after having their throats slit.
"What Iowa is doing is certainly a novel approach ... They're making the penalties for reporting on animal cruelty in some cases more severe than the penalties for animal cruelty," Matt Rice, a campaign coordinator for the group said.
He said Mercy for Animals is concerned the state would set a precedent for other states to follow.
Iowa animal cruelty penalties include both misdemeanors and felonies.
During floor debate, Rep. Pat Murphy, D-Dubuque, said the legislation could make people suspicious for no good reason.
"I think the overwhelming majority of farmers and people who own breeding facilities in Iowa operate very reputable businesses and treat their animals well, that's how they make their money," Murphy said. "But for that small percentage that has a problem with it, you have to wonder what do they have to hide?"
The bill now moves to the Senate.