Editorial: Banning cameras is misguided

Published 9:46 am Monday, April 25, 2011

Animal-rights activists tend to play by their own set of rules and often are willing to put themselves in harm’s way to support their cause. After all, it takes a certain amount of intestinal fortitude to get hired by a hog operation or turkey farm, then bring a hidden camera with you.

So we doubt that the threat of arrest on a gross misdemeanor charge would be much of a deterrent for a motivated member of PETA or the Humane Society.

But Sen. Doug Magnus, a Republican from Slayton, has introduced legislation that would criminalize the act of using video cameras to document cases of animal cruelty on any agricultural operation in the state.

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“These people who go undercover aren’t being truthful about what they’re doing,” Magnus said.

An astonishing claim. Undercover agents from PETA aren’t being forthright?

Granted, we’re not talking about police officers. They aren’t employed by the taxpayers, and they aren’t sniffing out drug deals or trying to infiltrate organized crime. And animal-rights groups have been known to go far too far, cutting fences and releasing animals that then pose a threat to wildlife and public safety.

But there’s no denying that undercover videos have occasionally put a much-needed spotlight on bad employees and bad livestock operations. This is a valuable service, because most consumers would prefer to believe that the meat we buy at the grocery store doesn’t come from animals that have been raised in horrible conditions, and perhaps tortured by a worker who hates his job and the animals that surround him.

Of course, the agriculture industry claims that animal-rights groups will stop at nothing in their efforts to put “GOTCHA!” moments on YouTube, including trespassing, fabricating incidents of abuse, doctoring video footage or simply taking things out of context. Most consumers don’t understand the strength and stubbornness of a 1,400-pound steer or a 250-pound hog, so they can be shocked upon seeing the “normal” (usually harmless) techniques that are used to motivate animals to move from Point A to Point B.

These concerns, however, don’t negate Minnesota’s whistleblower statute, which protects the rights of an “employee, or a person acting on behalf of an employee, (who) in good faith, reports a violation or suspected violation of any federal or state law … to an employer or to any governmental body or law enforcement official.”

Passage of this bill might not deter PETA, but it would strongly discourage farm employees from taking action when they see abuse. For anyone who defied the odds and cried foul, the inadmissibility of video evidence would turn each case into a “my word against yours” exercise in futility.

That’s not the direction Minnesota should go, because gone are the days when the majority of our meat came from family farms where the person who fed, sheltered, vaccinated and cleaned up after the animals also owned them and had a direct financial stake in their well-being.

As agricultural operations get larger, with more wage-earning employees, they’ll require more oversight, not less. Some of that oversight might come from a well-meaning colleague — or someone who got hired specifically to find out what’s going on behind closed doors.

— Rochester Post Bulletin, April 19