Photos, Private Property and Politics

There has been a fair amount of discussion recently over legislation being submitted across the country that would make it illegal for someone to photograph or shoot video on agricultural operations without the permission of the owner. Discussions on this type of legislation has been very polar, with folks either in full support or adamantly opposed. I find myself aligning more in the middle.

First, Senator Jim Norman (R) of Florida proposed the legislation, SB 1246, on Feb. 21, 2011.

“An act relating to farms; prohibiting a person from entering onto a farm or photographing or video recording a farm without the owner’s written consent; providing a definition; providing penalties; providing an effective date.”

Also considering similar legislation is the state of Iowa which introduced, on March 2, 2011, House File 589.

“HF 589 addresses concerns of bio-security of Iowa’s animal industry and the well-being of animals. The bill protects livestock and crop operations against unauthorized destruction, killing or injuring of stock, or disruption of agricultural or bio-technical operations on an owner’s premise. Additionally, it makes it unlawful to produce, possess, or distribute an unauthorized recording (sound or image) at an animal or crop operation.”

Arguments against legislation that protects private property rights and bio-security have been the loudest from activist groups that are against the ownership of animals and promote vegan lifestyles. Other groups, who have weighed in with reasonable questions to the legislation, have brought to light some valid questions.

I believe that the Iowa bill is much better than the Florida option as it more closely aligns with my thoughts on the issue. Having said that, I compiled six points that I feel are important to understand and address when drafting legislation on this matter.  I believe it is important to protect the safety and health of Americas livestock and food sources as well as empower people to report the abuse of animals and unsanitary conditions.

1. Members of the public may take all of the photos and video they want to from PUBLIC property. However, farms and ranches are PRIVATE property. If a person enters private property, without the landowners permission, that is called TRESPASSING and is against the law.

2. Bio-security is a serious issue for livestock producers that is not realized or understood by the public. Individuals entering multiple facilities, without the consent or knowledge of the owner, are at risk of spreading bacteria and viruses between operations, putting the health of the livestock in jeopardy.

3. Individuals who take photos or video, “undercover,” that show abusive actions should immediately report the action to the appropriate authority for appropriate action. Failure to immediately report abusive actions to respective authorities qualifies them as an accomplice, in my humble opinion.

4. All facilities that process livestock and commodities for consumption should have third-party surveillance in place to identify abuse, unsafe working conditions and potential food safety issues.

5. The vast majority of farm, ranch, auction yard, feeding and processing facility owners want to be made aware of employees who are abusive or conditions that place the health of the livestock in jeopardy, immediately.

6. Members of the public, wishing to visit and/or tour livestock operations and facilities should always ask for permission first, abide by the safety protocols and bring any issues of concern, that are observed, to the attention of the owner or manager immediately. If questions still remain, the appropriate authority should be contacted.

What are your thoughts on this issue?

  1. March 21, 2011 at 10:44 AM

    I write a bi-weekly farm-to-table column for the local paper, as well as maintain a cooking and gardening blog. If I am along a public road and see cushaws in the field, a rustic old barn, or livestock playing in the pastures I do not hesitate to take pictures as long as I am along the highway right-of-way. If I want up-close and personal, I ask the landowner.

    That being said, I agree with you farms are private property protected by trespassing laws. Could not imagine going onto a farm without permission. There could be a aggressive bull or a mean ol sow lookin for a fight. Trespassers put themselves at risk. Trespassers could bring in disease threats putting animals and/or crops at risk too.

    If animal abuse is suspected, ask the proper authorities to investigate. That’s what we pay them to do.

    Common sense and common courtesy says “Get Permission” when entering a farm to take photographs. Of course, those commodities seem mighty hard to come by these days.

    • commonsenseagriculture
      March 21, 2011 at 9:22 PM

      Joyce, I always appreciate your comments. I’m usually fairly receptive to folks wanting to photograph and video on our place. Being one of the main hangouts for the resident elk herd can gather a fair crowd.

      However, I never allow foreign tourists on the ranch or people who have traveled abroad, unless their passport shows they have been in country for at least 14 days. I trust, but verify. Visitors from other ranches, unless I know their health program, do not get out of the truck while driving in our fields. I also meet bull buyers from the south state off site with their bull(s), to reduce risk of disease from their trailers.

      Sadly, you are correct. Common sense and common courtesy are hard to find these days.

  2. Andrew B
    March 21, 2011 at 10:52 AM

    I think your six points are dead on. As a photographer, I’m well aware that I have the freedom to photographer (pretty much) whatever I’d like, as long as I’m on public property. As soon as I’m on private property however, that doesn’t hold true – but only after you’ve been told not to.

    As for surveillance systems, I think that’s a great idea…but I’m not sure it would be economically feasible for smaller operations. However, having that ‘accountability’ for employees and having recordings may be invaluable should any issues arise with the production arise.

    • commonsenseagriculture
      March 21, 2011 at 9:25 PM

      I’ve set up the camera to watch the play back and discovered little “tweeks” that could be made to become more efficient and reduce stress. It is a great perspective. Picked up the idea from Temple Grandin and was able to identify several issues that were causing cattle to stop and hesitate, while coming down the lead-up.

  3. March 21, 2011 at 1:06 PM

    These laws are a perfect example of the bureaucratic mentality at work. Bureaucracy is bureaucracy, no matter if it’s a business or government, in this case it’s both walking hand in hand. What’s the problem? Well, some activists are showing that large meat distributors are raising animals in squalid conditions, despite the picture perfect postcard farms they show on their labels. The solution? Ban taking any pictures that might show that those red barns and white picket fences on the label are in fact bullshit. Seriously, when is banning not the solution for everything, from guns to light bulbs. We live in an ever more transparent world, whether it’s wikileaks exposing state secrets, or people wanting a full product history available on their iPhones. Do these companies and lawmakers actually think they can put the information genie back in the bottle?

    Now, I’m a hardcore private property zealot, so I totally support the property rights angle. My solution is different. AS LONG AS MEAT COMPANIES SHOW ONE THING AND DO ANOTHER, THEY WILL BE SUBJECT TO SUCH TACTICS. How about full transparency? Forgo the red barns and overalls on the label, and put a picture of a feedlot or a confinement house on every cellophaned styrofoam card of meat. After all, that’s more honest isn’t it? Think of the power you’ll take away from anti meat activists! “Here it is, take it or leave it, this is how we ‘feed the world’. You don’t want poor people to starve do ya?”

    And if that don’t sell over the meat counter, then maybe you’ve got bigger problems.

  4. CRG
    March 21, 2011 at 5:01 PM

    I wholeheartedly agree with you on all counts.

    I’m always leery of laws that aim to stop one group from one activity. We already have laws in place against trespassing, as you pointed out, as well as laws against fraud, defamation, libel and slander. We need to enforce those laws rather than trying to craft more.

    Go after the groups who are editing video specifically to make operations look bad, subpoena the entire video footage, and sue them for slander and defamation. Don’t shut off the industry and make it look like we have something to hide.

  5. March 22, 2011 at 6:50 AM

    I am also in the middle on this issue; more regulation and laws on top of ones that are not enforced properly only leads to more bureaucracy. Photos and filming from public property is fine, but ask first before coming onto my farm. And sometimes we need to expose the bad actors just to make sure everyone else is operating as they should be. On the other side, the general public has little understanding of how food is grown and processed, let alone their meat, so any picture or video will be disturbing. Its a tough issue; will auto factories be next, or funeral homes? Only because farms are outside does this issue come to the forefront.

  6. March 23, 2011 at 2:04 PM

    As a professional photographer who works with the ag industry, I can definitely see both sides of this. But I also come down pretty hard on the side of not doing anything without permission. I would never go on someone’s property without permission, or photograph on their property without permission, because that’s a simple matter of having respect.

    But I would also feel free to photograph anything I could see from a public space, because legal precident is very clear in support of that right. I’ve only been asked to stop photographing once – on a public sidewalk in downtown LA of all places – and in that case, I declined to stop because I was clearly within my rights (which we *still* have to stand up for).

    The vast majority of times I’m on someone’s property, I’ve been asked to come there specifically to take photographs, so I don’t generally have problems. But I think it would be dishonest to come on someone’s property under false pretenses to take photographs for whatever reason.

    That said, I generally do not support laws making taking photos a felony, because – particularly since 9/11 – photographers have often been treated as de facto criminals. If you are trespassing on someone’s property taking pictures, there are laws against trespassing. There are also existing privacy laws that cover people taking photos in places where they don’t have permission. If none of these laws are stopping animal rights activists, I doubt any new laws would stop them either.

    If you make enough laws, eventually everyone becomes a criminal.

  7. Mike
    April 26, 2011 at 6:42 AM

    The point of this law is to prevent dogooders and muckrackers from uncovering misdoings by agribusiness. That’s it, nothing else. Some businesses have been caught red handed on film mistreating livestock and unsafe hygienic practices and they lobbied to have a law to hide their misdeeds. Business money talks in politics. And bad people walk.

    • CRG
      April 26, 2011 at 1:04 PM

      I disagree, Mike.

      Yes, some businesses (or their employees, for whom the business owner is ultimately responsible) have been caught mistreating livestock, and those business owners should absolutely be held accountable for that. But in a number of other cases where it may have appeared that they were caught mistreating livestock, the truth was actually far from what was represented on video. A report from an independent investigation of one such video can be found here:

      That misrepresentation is the sort of thing the law is designed to prevent. I am not defending the proposed law, just explaining what I understand to be the reasoning behind it.

      When huge, well-moneyed organizations paint a target on your back and go after your livelihood by hook or by crook, it is understandable that you might be a little paranoid. That is what the livestock industry is facing right now. While I personally do not think that passing a law like this is wise, I can certainly understand their reasoning.

      In my experience, the vast majority of ranchers care very much about the welfare of the animals in their care. They take the responsibility of that care very seriously. Not only is it a matter of simple humanity to ensure that you are giving animals proper care, but it is also to their advantage financially. Healthy, well-cared-for animals are better for their bottom line as well as for their conscience.

  1. April 7, 2011 at 10:46 AM
  2. May 7, 2011 at 7:22 AM

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