HARRISBURG -- Citing farmers unfairly tarnished by undercover documentation, a state senator Wednesday announced a proposal to outlaw videotaping or photographing on a farm without the owner's permission -- unless the recordings target animal abuse and are shared exclusively with the police.
Sen. Mike Brubaker, R-Lancaster, said he heard numerous concerns last year after he introduced a bill that would make unauthorized photography or videotaping a type of agricultural trespassing. He began Wednesday to seek legislative co-sponsors for a new measure containing an exception for undercover documentation used to tip off law enforcement to animal abuse.
"This is not restricting photographs," Mr. Brubaker said. "My prior bill did. This bill allows photographs to be taken and then the bill instructs clearly the person taking those photographs in what they need to do" with them.
"So if the purpose of taking a photograph is to document inhumane treatment of animals, putting it on a social website does not get the job done," he continued. "We need to ensure those photographs are properly taken on that site in question and that true inhumane treatment of animals has been occurring on that farm. And if that's the case, it's law enforcement's responsibility to prosecute that case."
The legislation will not contain a time limit on documenting animal abuse, nor will it include a deadline for turning over the video or photographs to the state police, local police or officers of humane society organizations, Mr. Brubaker said.
In April 2012, the Humane Society of the United States released video footage it said was taken by an employee working undercover at a Kreider Farms egg facility in Manheim, Lancaster County. The Humane Society said its investigation found cages overcrowded with birds and containing dead hens, among other problems.
After the video became public, state inspectors toured the facility and found no violations, said Samantha Elliott Krepps, a spokeswoman for the Department of Agriculture. Ron Kreider, president and CEO of Kreider Farms, said in a press release at the time that the Humane Society allegations were untrue and that the video could have been shot in any chicken house.
Versions of what critics call "ag gag" bills have been introduced in 11 states this year, including in Pennsylvania in the House, said Matthew Dominguez, public policy manager for the farm animal protection campaign at the Humane Society of the United States. He said such proposals would have a chilling effect on investigations of animal abuse.
"Whistle-blowing investigations in the past few years have exposed food safety issues and rampant animal abuse on industrial factory farms in America, and the industry's response to these investigations hasn't been to clean up their act but instead to make it illegal for you to expose the cruelty in the first place," Mr. Dominguez said.
With legislative language not yet available, several organizations declined to weigh the bill itself. But Andy Hoover, legislative director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said it appeared the proposal would run into protections of free speech.
"Based on the press release there will be a prohibition of some sort of distributing of photos and videos," Mr. Hoover said. "That causes a First Amendment problem. Only in very narrow circumstances can the government prohibit expression through photos and videos, and this does not fit those narrow exceptions."
The Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association has tracked similar legislation. Paula Knudsen, the group's director of legal affairs, said in an email that she would have to review the new bill, adding: "We are hopeful that it does not contain the kind of language that would criminalize newsgathering and dissemination activities."
Senate Republicans have not discussed the proposal in caucus, said Erik Arneson, spokesman for Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, but he added that Mr. Brubaker is seen as a leader on issues of agriculture.
"Certainly it's significant any time he introduces a bill that addresses agricultural issues," Mr. Arneson said.
In a news conference in his Capitol office, Mr. Brubaker cited his membership in a group called State Agriculture and Rural Leaders in learning of farms subject to accusations of animal abuse. The organization does not lobby, said executive secretary Carolyn Orr, but she said proposals like that of Mr. Brubaker encourage the reporting of animal abuse.
"It's a bill that if you see an abuse you must report it, instead of taking a video and keeping it for months and editing it who knows how and then releasing it to the media," Ms. Orr said. "People who do that are not really concerned about animal welfare. They're concerned about promoting their own agenda."
David Wolfgang, an extension veterinarian in the College of Agricultural Sciences at Penn State, said farmers working hard to produce high-quality, safe and reasonably priced food have been hurt by exposes targeting their operations in ways they see as inaccurate.
"Most producers that raise animals, that's their bread and butter, so to speak," he said. "They want healthy animals. They want them well kept. They want them to have a reasonable quality of life."
Mark O'Neill, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, wrote in an email that trespassers could unintentionally spread disease to a farm, and echoed that farmers care about animal welfare: "Farmers understand that treating their animals well is the right thing to do, and they know if they treat their animals well, the animals will treat them well in terms of overall productivity."
Mr. Dominguez, of the Humane Society, said farms have plenty of legal protection. Not so, he said, animals abused behind closed doors.
"The only way we can expose them is to have people gain access through employment and document the rampant abuse happening," Mr. Dominguez said. "For a farm that is not abusing animals, they have nothing to gain from this law."
Karen Langley: firstname.lastname@example.org or 717-787-2141.