News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Editorials

January 18, 2014

EDITORIAL: Nothing good in ‘ag-gag’ bill

Farms don’t need special protections

TERRE HAUTE — The bucolic, sentimental, nostalgic view many of us have of farming is of sons and daughters of the soil nurturing The Land, raising abundant crops in verdant fields and caring lovingly for animals they name Bessie, Rooster Boy and Porky.

Thankfully, that is the daily living truth on the vast majority of family farms in Indiana upon which animals are treated humanely — fed regularly, tended when birthing, assured of medical attention, protected from the extremes of weather, cleaned from the muck, cared for, really, as a part of the family.

But there is another image that can play in one’s mind, an ugly one of farm animals being beaten to death (with “pickaxes and hammers,” by one report), pushed around with forklift trucks and front-end loaders when they are unable to stand, underfed, deprived medical care and cleanliness, taken to slaughter when they are unhealthy, not even given the dignity of being put down humanely.

That happens on far different kinds of farms in some states, so-called factory farms, upon which animals are nothing more than meat for slaughter — no matter the inhumane treatment to living things, no matter the abject lack of sanitary conditions, no matter the threat not only to animals but to the safety of the human food supply, no matter the dangers to workers.

Into this mix, now comes an Indiana General Assembly bill, Senate Bill 101, the so-called “ag-gag” bill. It is called that, mainly by its opponents, who see its provisions as gagging whistleblowers and journalists — gagging, as in preventing them from speaking.

Sen. Travis Holdman, a Republican from Markle, has introduced the bill. Last year, a similar bill of his died in the final minutes of the session, even after passing both houses.

Holdman’s current bill would expand criminal trespass penalties for those convicted of entering another person’s property — in this case a farm — without the person’s consent.

The state senator is from a town of about 1,000 people that straddles Huntington and Wells counties in farm-rich northeast Indiana, on the banks of the Wabash River. So, his continuing interest in the concept of one’s property being inviolate understandably springs from his roots.

But sometimes property rights and protections must give way to the greater good. And that is why Holdman’s bill needs to be defeated. For if his bill were to become law, whistleblowers or journalists who were to go undercover to document abuses to animals, to the sanitary food supply or to workers could be sent to jail — at who knows what extra strain and expense to police and courts — for, essentially, performing a public service.

No new law is needed. Any malicious lawbreakers among whistleblowers and journalists could be dealt with quite adequately through existing state laws on trespass, vandalism and defamation.

The ag gag movement in Indiana parallels the same idea currently under consideration in other states. In recent years, ag gag bills also have died, been defeated or been vetoed in several other states.

Six states — Utah, Iowa, Kansas, North Dakota, Montana and Missouri — have ag gag laws. The Associated Press reported last week that Utah’s law is being challenged in federal court and will be heard by the same judge, Robert Shelby, who struck down Utah’s same-sex marriage ban.

You have, no doubt, seen video of animals being maltreated in ways that make one wince and want to look away.

But groups such as the Humane Society of the United States, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and In Defense of Animals won’t let us look away.

Neither will investigative journalists — such as one of the best in business, Brian Ross of the ABC News Investigative Unit — who take it as their calling to expose wrongdoing in areas that include animal abuse.

And while some would label those groups as extremist do-gooders and overzealous reporters, the living daily truth is that they are working in the public interests of humane treatment of farm animals and the healthfulness of foods in our groceries and farmers markets and on our tables.

Their freedom to do that without undue fear of arrest and prosecution needs to be preserved, and ag gag needs to be prevented from becoming the law of our state.

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