Chesterton Tribune


Indiana bill targets undercover video whistleblowers

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) A bill that would make it a crime to take photographs or shoot footage without permission inside Indiana farms and businesses has advanced in the Legislature, pitting property rights supporters against animal welfare activists.

The bill was approved on a 7-2 vote Tuesday by a Senate panel and now heads to the full Senate.

Republican state Sen. Travis Holdman of Markle said his bill targets what he calls "vigilantes" who enter private property with the sole intent of obtaining undercover photos or videos. He told The Journal Gazette that many of those people are animal welfare activists seeking evidence of possible animal abuse.

"We don't need vigilantes out entering people's private property, industrial operation, factory or farm, doing things surreptitiously . . . for no other reason than to annoy and harass," Holdman said.

Holdman said he filed the bill after hearing from a farmer in his district who said someone making a delivery took video with his phone and could not provide a reasonable explanation, the Indianapolis Star reported. Holdman said nothing happened to that farmer.

But a spokesman for Indiana-based Rose Acre Farms one of the nation's largest egg producers described a potential public-relations headache the company faced in 2010 involving undercover video.

Rose Acre's general counsel, Joe Miller, said the Humane Society of the United States posted on a video on its website that shocked customers. That video, released at an Iowa news conference, was taken by someone who had gotten a job at two Iowa farms, one owned by Rose Acre and the second by another company.

Miller told members of the Senate Committee on Corrections and Criminal Law that soon after the video was made public, 50 customers called to say "they wanted to stop buying our eggs."

"That would have devastated our business," he said.

Ed Robert, of the Indiana Manufacturers Association, said photos and videos obtained at businesses are often posted online and sometimes harm the businesses in question.

"These people are trespassers," he said. "They are doing something they are not supposed to be doing."

The state director for the Humane Society of the United States, Erin Huang, told the panel that taking away whistleblower protections related to the country's food supply is dangerous. She said undercover photos and videos have led to animal abuse prosecutions in some states.

Huang, a former Marion County deputy prosecutor who handled animal cruelty cases, also said a number of criminal charges could apply in cases of undercover photos or videos, such as trespassing or fraud. Businesses and farms also have civil remedies through libel or defamation lawsuits, she said.

Sen. Mike Young, R-Indianapolis, said he is uncertain about the bill and wants to see if an amendment can limit its scope.

For example, under the measure it would not be illegal to take the photos or video if the evidence of illegality is turned over to a government oversight agency, law enforcement or possibly the media. However, that material still could not be posted or distributed publicly.

And concerns remain that journalists might not be able to conduct undercover investigations without running afoul of the law.

Sen. Mark Stoops, D-Bloomington, said the bill reminded him of a trip he made to Communist-era Romania where he wasn't allowed to take photos.

"This makes the law a little more messy. We already have laws to deal with this issue. We don't need another one," he said.


Posted 2/13/2013