February 22, 2012

Do legislators even read bills anymore? Or, how Utah might criminalize taking pictures of cows

By Do legislators even read bills anymore? Or, how Utah might criminalize taking pictures of cows

In the ever torrential rush to inundate the citizenry with yet another regulation to comply with, those poor, overworked legislators don’t even have time to read the bills they vote on anymore. (Remember, you have to pass the bill to find out what’s in the bill). Or at least that’s the only explanation I can provide for Utah HB 187.

As reported today by The Salt Lake Tribune, HB 187 – voted out of committee and now before the full house in Utah – makes it a criminal act to take a photograph, or record the sounds, of livestock, crops, orchards, and the production thereof.  According to another local Utah paper, the bill is an attempt to thwart animal rights groups (like PETA) from entering farmers’ and ranchers’ private property. The kicker, however, is that it doesn’t seem to matter whether the agricultural operation or the photographer are on public or private property.

A range cow stands along the Boren Mesa Trail in the La Sal Mountains near Moab, UT. Photo courtesy the Salt Lake Tribune

The plain language of the bill (even with the proposed amendments) criminalizes all photography and recording of sounds, even if the farming operation and photographer are on public property. See the picture accompanying the article? That’s an agricultural operation (I call it a cow) and it just happens to be on public land; according to the bill this picture would be criminal.

Now maybe I am being a bit nitpicky. Probably no one would ever be prosecuted for taking pictures of livestock grazing on public land. But if that’s the case, if the bill will be in practice limited to invasions of private property, why pass the bill? There are already criminal trespass laws in Utah. If an animal rights activist invades your farm or ranch you can already get them arrested.

I remember that when I worked in the Oregon State Legislature I was astounded how often a state representative championed a bill to accomplish “A”, yet the bill actually accomplished “B.” When presented with this the legislator would always insist the bill would actually accomplish A, not because that’s what the bill said, but because that’s what he wanted it to do.

While the Utah bill is not as overbroad or over-punitive as those considered in Florida, Iowa, and Minnesota last year, it is objectionable for similar reasons:

The fact is that we already criminalize too much photo-taking. Depending on where you live, it may be unlawful to snap photos in a busy transit hub, or videotape the police officer who’s conducting an arrest; New Jersey is now considering a law that could ban much picture-taking of children in public places. To be sure, farmers and food processors also have rights deserving of respect, but the core of those rights should be the right to post a notice of “No photography on premises” and then seek civil (as distinct from criminal, in the absence of forcible entry) remedies against visitors or employees who ignore it.

Oh, and a note to all legislators: would you please find out what’s in a bill BEFORE you vote on it.

Update
A reader pointed out to me a Deseret News article relating additional details about the committee vote. Apparently, during the committee meeting the director of the Utah Sentencing Commission actually warned the legislators that the law is too broadly worded and that the punishments attached are too harsh. She encouraged lawmakers to adopt a more narrowly written version of the bill. Result? The committee voted 10-3 to move the measure to the full Utah House as originally written.

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