Senate advances bill setting penalties for trespassers who photograph animal confinements

By: - March 30, 2021 5:00 pm

Iowa lawmakers are moving to make it a crime, as much as a felony, to use a camera while trespassing at an animal confinement.

The Iowa Legislature has moved in recent years to stop workers at the confinements from secretly recording animal abuse and other offenses, then alerting the media and others. Some of those bills have been thrown out in court, but the so-called “ag gag” laws remain a legal issue. 

House File 775, already passed by the House, is aimed at trespassers, not workers. But some opponents say they fear workers would be affected. 

The measure drew opposition from the labor groups in a Senate subcommittee Tuesday. The bill would make it a crime to place or use a camera or “surveillance device” or take samples of “certain materials” in animal feeding operations. 

Peter Hird, lobbyist for the American Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, said the bill goes too far. He said his organization is concerned it might prevent documentation of workplace safety violations.

“The fact that taking a picture or video could be an aggravated misdemeanor on top of the normal crime of trespassing is something we are opposed to,” Hird told a Senate subcommittee. “We feel this bill could deter people from documenting workplace safety issues and maybe illegal labor practices. An example will be an employee who potentially enters a restricted area and could be trespassing.”

The Iowa Pork Producers Association spoke in favor of the legislation. “We believe that this bill protects the private property interests of our members across the state who take a lot of pride in raising safe, affordable, wholesome product,” said lobbyist Drew Mogler. “It really serves them to protect what they’re doing on their farms from various people have hidden agendas and things like that.”

J.D. Davis, lobbyist for the Iowa Association of Business and Industry, said ABI supports the bill to protect trade secrets in manufacturing facilities.

The bill would make repeat offenses a felony. 

Sen. Tony Bisignano, D-Des Moines, a former AFSCME union local president, supported the vote to advance the bill. “This is a difficult issue, but I don’t think we can allow this kind of activity,” Bisignano said.

However, he questioned the felony charge for repeat offenses, suggesting various misdemeanor charges might be more appropriate.

All three subcommittee members advanced the bill to the full Senate Commerce Committee. The bill needs approval from the Senate panel this week to remain eligible for debate.

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Perry Beeman
Perry Beeman

Perry Beeman has nearly 40 years of experience in Iowa journalism and has won national awards for environmental and business writing. He has written for The Des Moines Register and the Business Record, where he also served as managing editor. He also is former editorial director of Grinnell College. He co-authored the recently published book, "The $80 Billion Gamble," which details the lottery-rigging case of Eddie Tipton.