Imagine for a moment that a man enters your farm. He says he's from the telephone company, but he's really not. In fact, he's a spy, and he's there to record your operation with the intent of making you look like a crook and painting the entire industry with a broad brush of criticism.
Does he have a legal right to do that?
Legislators in Minnesota, Iowa and Florida have been debating that question as they weigh a farmer's right to privacy against the public's right to know about possibly illegal activities.
The bills would make it illegal for someone to surreptitiously create video of a farm, ranch or food plant without the owner's permission.
Farmers say the legislation is necessary because secretly filming a farm or ranch is trespassing. They also say the videos are used as propaganda not so much to correct a shortcoming at an individual farm but to criticize animal agriculture in general. They turn the videos into "documentaries" that run on cable television channels and post them across the Internet, implying that all animal agriculture is bad and endorses the mistreatment of animals.
In actuality, nothing could be further from the truth. Farmers and ranchers go above and beyond to make sure that their livestock and poultry are well treated. While a bad actor may surface on occasion, that in no way reflects on the industry as a whole.
Anti-animal-agriculture activists say the legislation would prevent them from "exposing" wrongdoing. They say they need to be able to sneak onto farms, even if it's under false pretenses, to get video.
That argument doesn't hold a bucket of feed.
A farm or ranch is private property. As such, anyone who enters that property does so legally only with the owner's permission. To say otherwise is like arguing that anyone can enter your home and video anything he wants. Then he can post it on the Internet at will.
The U.S. Constitution's stance on the right to privacy is loud and clear. Supreme Court decisions have long supported that right. Even police must obtain a judge's permission to enter private property.
Activists say a law that prevents such videos will have a chilling effect on whistleblowers. They say illegal activities could go unpunished as a result.
That argument doesn't hold up, either. If someone happens to witness activity that appears to be illegal, he can pick up the phone and notify the proper authorities. Law-abiding citizens do it all of the time, without the help of a hidden video camera or while trespassing.
The only thing the new laws would do is prevent activists from using undercover videos to promote themselves on the Internet after committing an act of trespass.
"We believe this can help prosecute those people who, while they claim to have animals' interests at heart, don't really follow through and report the animal abuse -- if in fact there actually is anything -- immediately like they're required to," Tom Shipley, a lobbyist with the Iowa Cattlemen's Association, told The Associated Press. "They hang on to that information for publicity purposes."
This legislation isn't about "exposing" illegal activities. It's about trespassing and the constitutionally guaranteed right to privacy.
If someone witnesses a crime or a violation of a regulation, don't record it and hold a press conference. Call the authorities and report it. They will take care of it.
It may not lead the evening television news shows, but it's the responsible thing to do.