By Heather Callaghan
Ag-gag laws are cropping up like Whac-a-Mole across the states in an attempt to protect large-scale farming and cattle operations from those pesky activists who find out about abuse and cruelty. Instead of addressing the systemic issue of transparency and animal/food safety, lobbying leads to more laws that inhibit the freedom to speak out about dismal conditions – clear 1st Amendment violations. Always in the name of “safety” and protecting trade secrets. It’s one thing to keep people from committing theft, destruction of property, breaking and entering, intellectual property theft and privacy violations – which basic laws support. But it’s wholly another to prosecute well-intentioned tourists or try peaceful protesters as terrorists.
The latest to get burned is prominent world photographer and freelancer for National Geographic, George Steinmetz. He often gets government clearance to roam the airways for his aerial photography and uses a motorized paraglider with parachute and what looks like a lawn chair.
Even though the ensuing brief arrest on June 28th, and $270 bail each stems from trespassing, the underlying cause (fear) and reason for phone call to the sheriff appear to stem from upholding the Farm Animal and Field Crop and Research Facilities Protection Act. It was one of the first state laws of its kind enacted in 1990 and criminalizes farm photography.
Apparently he and assistant Wei Zhang parked a black SUV on feedlot ranch property outside Garden City, Kansas, and lifted from there. Steinmetz circled and took aerial photos. During this time the SUV moved from the large property. Sheriff Kevin Bascue said the men were charged because they didn’t have permission to take off from the property and didn’t tell anyone they were going to photograph.
An employee saw Steinmetz in the air and called the sheriff with his suspicions. Steinmetz and Zhang were arrested after Steinmetz’ landing. Even after the vehicle was removed from the property, feedlot executives pushed for their arrest.
KLA [property] spokesman Todd Domer said the group continues to stress to its members to be watchful – and this incident is a good reminder the importance of being alert in an effort to provide a safe product for the food supply.
“Any unauthorized and suspicious activity should be reported to local law enforcement,” he said, noting such activity is a biosecurity issue for the facility.
“Everyone knows safe food starts with healthy animals,” Domer said. “We have to have those animals healthy in order to produce a safe food supply.”
The real underlying fear is activism that could reveal to the world the conditions of the CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) and feedlots of industrial farming practices. Otherwise, why wouldn’t the already many protective laws in place suffice?
A Finney County attorney told TakePart it was a simple trespassing criminal misdemeanor but added:
The deal with these animal facilities is they’re not enclosed. They’re contained. There are trade secrets and security issues. What are they taking the photos for? To damage us? Sue us? Why is someone there? If someone is coming onto posted property—the question is why? Most of the feedlot guys would cooperate with any photographer. They just want to be asked…They don’t want to be put in the public eye.
National Geographic does not believe any laws were broken here. They plan on providing defense for Steinmetz and Zhang. They are waiting on word from county attorneys to see which direction this plays out.
An update from Finney County’s Attorney office seeks to disassociate with the charges being related to photography and farming:
Much discussion has ensued surrounding the arrest of Mr. Steinmetz and his employee regarding the right to air space and to take photographs. The charges in no way are related to those two issues and focus on the landowners right to privacy and control over their property.
But the release to dispel these concerns, the property spokesman’s words, and comments from an attorney seem to contradict this update.
For professionals like Steinmetz, as well as activists, it is important to keep current new laws in mind … especially when various interpretations can land you in jail, perhaps even as an “agri-terrorist.” There is a slippery slope where property rights, breach of trade secrets, and common sense can conflict with unsuspected outcomes.
Feedlot Photo: dmbernasconi/Flickr
Anyone else see the irony that our government snoops above us uninhibited in a variety of ways, but a prominent photographer can be punished for doing his job with no mal-intent?
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