Update (2/29/12, 9:15 AM ET): Last night, the Iowa House agreed to the Senate language on this Ag Gag legislation. The bill has now been sent to the Governor for approval. Although legislators removed the language that specifically restricts the recording of undercover video, the bill is clearly aimed at whistleblowers who use such, as the proposed legislation is written so that workers could face serious charges if one "obtain[s] access to the facility by false pretenses, or lies on an employment application with the intent to commit an act not authorized by the owner."
Today the Iowa Senate passed a revised "Ag Gag" bill, in a 40-10 vote, that would have a strong chilling effect on potential whistleblowers otherwise able to expose wrongdoing in the food industry.
The House bill (passed last year) would criminalize individuals who record undercover video at agricultural facilities. However, the Iowa attorney general's office told legislators that the provision would likely face constitutional challenges since the "U.S. Supreme Court has previously ruled that films exposing animal cruelty represent the exercise of free speech."
Today's approved Senate version excludes any mention of video or audio recordings, but instead it prohibits "agricultural production facility fraud."
The Des Moines Register explains:
A person who obtained access to a facility by false pretenses or lies in their job application with the intent to commit an act not authorized by the owner could be found guilty and face serious or aggravated misdemeanor charges.
As Senator Herman Quirmbach (D-Ames) said, the new provision is "less onerous but still a mistake," opening up a Pandora's box of scenarios that may ultimately prevent individuals from speaking up if they witness serious atrocities or public health threats on company property.
If someone applies for a slaughterhouse job in order to write a book about the experience, but they do in fact carry out their duties, are they breaking the law?
What if a worker filled out a legitimate job application but then in the course of employment witnessed an animal abuse? What if he then decided to come forward only to have the facility owner accuse him of “intending to commit an act not authorized by the owner” when the worker was hired? That threat could certainly dissuade a would-be whistleblower.
These are not the questions we should have to think about. They are merely distractions from the real problem, which is a convoluted food system where repeated violations occur out of sight.
If employees encounter wrongdoing on the job, but somehow the company can question their motives, the ability to safely blow the whistle is diminished. In effect, these measures to supposedly prevent fraud are scare tactics to keep employees silent. Farm operations don't want workers keeping information from employers, but what about the employers keeping information from the public? As the nickname suggests, the legislation still gags whistleblowers, the people in the best position to protect the integrity of our food.
Sarah Damian is New Media Associate for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.