By Will Potter
Utah is the latest state to consider new laws targeting undercover investigators who expose animal welfare abuses on factory farms. A new bill would make photographing animal abuse on par with assaulting a police officer.
Rep. John Mathis calls undercover investigators "animal rights terrorists," and says video recordings that have brought national attention to systemic animal welfare abuses are "propaganda" and fundraising efforts.
The bill, HB187, targets anyone who videotapes or takes photograph on a farmer's property without permission. It creates the crime of "agricultural operation interference," a class A misdemeanor which is elevated to a third-degree felony on the second offense.
It comes at at time when the FBI has considered "terrorism" charges against undercover investigators.
Rep. Mathis' opening remarks at a hearing by the Utah House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee on February 14th are indicative of the good ol' boy network that is attempting to pass this legislation:
"It's fun to see my good ag friends in this committee," Mathis said. "" all my good friends are here."
Mathis, the sponsor of the bill, said animal protection groups are solely using their investigations as "propaganda" efforts for fundraising drives. He went on to claim that animal welfare reforms, such as allowing chickens to spread their wings, are actually "detrimental to the welfare of animals."
Exposing animal abuse is hurting animal welfare? Photography is terrorism? What Mathis leaves out is that these investigations have led to criminal charges against farm workers. Just this week, undercover video shot by Mercy for Animals at a Butterball farm resulted in six workers being charged with misdemeanors and felonies.
And a recent investigation by Compassion Over Killing (in Iowa, another state considering "Ag Gag" legislation) showed workers pushing herniated intestines back inside injured piglets, thencovering the wound with tape.
Only token gestures of opposition were made during the hearing, such as one representative voicing concerns that the bill could target people who take "pretty barn pictures."
But this bill isn't about pretty pictures.
This bill, and similar attempts in Florida, Iowa, Minnesota and New York, is to criminalize anyone who exposes abuses on factory farms.
These disproportionate penalties are solely motivated by the corporate interests affected by animal welfare reforms. As Rep. Craig Frank, a Republican, noted: this bill makes taking a photograph of a factory farm in Utah a third-degree felony on the second offense, the same as assaulting a police officer.
He called it a "Black Angus Ops" bill and questioned the need for new laws when trespassing is already a crime, but outside of making jokes he and the others on the committee offered no opposition.
In light of the recent criminal charges and systemic animal welfare violations, it's startling to hear Mathis and supporters say the bill is the same as punishing someone who leaves a video recorder "under you and your wife's bed."
This isn't about personal privacy.
It's about corporations attempting to hide their criminal activity, deceive consumers, and deflect public scrutiny onto those who are dragging these abuses into the sunlight.
The committee voted 10-3 to move the measure as originally written to the full House. You can contact Utah representatives about HB 187 here.