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Protecting Minnesota’s Bad Apples

May 04, 2011 By Riordan Frost, Policy Associate

If there is one thing the new legislative majority in Minnesota does well, it's making waves in the environmental community—but not good waves. These waves have threatened Minnesota's waterways and other natural resources. The most recent legislation establishes punishments, not protections, that would impact whistleblowers or journalists who try to expose any animal or crop facility. Despite rhetoric, wide-reaching bills introduced in the House and Senate clearly do nothing to protect farmers with good practices and ethical operations—their purpose, instead, is to protect Minnesota's bad apples.

The legislation in question (HF1369, SF 1118) prohibits any person from producing "a record which reproduces an image or sound occurring at the animal facility" without the owner's consent. It also prohibits anyone from possessing or distributing any such record, as well as from entering a facility that is not open to the public.

Bear with me on the legalese for this next paragraph:

These acts fall under "animal facility interference" and any person convicted of this would be charged with a gross misdemeanor. Another clause in the bill attaches a gross misdemeanor punishment to "animal facility fraud." This type of fraud is committed if a person "obtains access to an animal facility by false premises" or makes a false statement on an application for employment to the facility. All of these clauses are repeated to apply to any crop facility as well.

The bill is troubling for a number of reasons. First is the broad definition of "animal facility." The definition includes any place that keeps agricultural animals for research or traditional farming, but also any pound, pet shop, kennel, or any location operated by a licensed veterinarian. The definition of "crop operation property" is more straightforward, including fields, orchards, nurseries, greenhouses, and other traditional farming sites. The broad definition of animal facility allows it to include factory farms and puppy mills, which both have reputations for abuse and mistreatment.

One of the reasons these reputations exist is because of whistleblowers who produced evidence of mistreatment and distributed it. If this bill becomes law, those whistleblowing acts would be punishable by up to one year in jail, as well as potential fines. To put that into perspective, third-offense drunk driving and second-offense domestic assault are both gross misdemeanors in Minnesota and subject to the same punishments. This bill also pushes second-offense facility interference or fraud from a gross misdemeanor to a felony.

The bill has been receiving a great deal of attention along with similar bills introduced in Iowa and Florida. Both bills essentially mirror Minnesota's bill, though the original version of the Floridian bill would have charged any person producing a record of a farm without the owner's consent with a first-degree felony. The New York Times published an editorial opposing these bills, as did several rural Minnesotan papers in conservative-leaning areas.

As Minnesota new media site Bluestem Prairie reported, the conservative editorial-leaning New Ulm Journal and Fairmont Sentinel came out in opposition to HF 1369. The reasoning from both papers was that the punishments wouldn't scare away activists, and that good farmers with good practices have nothing to fear.

Environmental website Grist also noticed Minnesota's bill, and picked up on the vested interests of its authors, with the help of the local food advocacy blog Simple, Good and Tasty. The most telling interest is held by State Representative Rod Hamilton (R-22B), one of the bill's lead authors. He just so happens to be the director of communications for the third largest pork producer in the United States.

This bill sets Minnesota back, and heralds a terrible example from the country's breadbasket. Punishing whistleblowers of facilities with abusive practices is focusing on the wrong end of the problem. Instead we should be crafting policies to protect animals from abuse and reward farmers who run transparent operations. As Mark Bittman of the New York Times points out, there are no federal laws about animal cruelty on farms, which leaves it up to the states.

While Minnesota and its strong agricultural community could be a leader in good agricultural practices, this bill seeks to protect unethical and unsafe facilities by punishing those who seek to expose them. No amount of economic development from such facilities justifies these practices. This is not how we move Minnesota forward. Some say this bill would be struck down on a first amendment basis if it became law, but it shouldn't be allowed to progress that far. Indeed, one author in the House and one in the Senate have already removed their names as co-authors.

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