Iowa Law Would Criminalize Publishing Farm Exposes

18 03 2011

Author’s Note: This is a cross- post from my NPPA Advocacy blog.

Recently we told you about a bill banning photography of farms in Florida. We have learned that there is a similar bill, prohibiting photography (among other things) of farms and crops without the permission of the owner. The Iowa bill has been compared to the Florida bill, but a quick read of the bill shows that it is far worse. To Iowa’s credit, it appears that photography from the street wouldn’t be affected, however, mere possession and distribution of undercover photography of a farm would be a crime. This elevates editors and news organizations to the status of criminals if they publish, or even possess undercover footage of farms, crops or animal facilities.

Specifically the bill states that “distribution or possession” of photographs that were illegally obtained (through violations of earlier portions of the bill). Under the proposed law, “A person is guilty of animal facility interference if the person. . . [p]ossess or distribute a record which produces an image or sound occurring at the animal facility which” is  a “reproduction of a visual or audio experience occurring at the animal facility, including but not limited to a photographic or audio medium” without the consent of the owner.

To give some perspective to the blatant unconstitutionality of this bill consider this – the only time that the Supreme Court has upheld a law that bans distribution and possession of any kind of photography it was a law against possessing and distributing child pornography. As powerful of a lobby farmers are, elevating exposes of farms to the level of child pornography is absurd and I can’t see how this would hold up. Just last year the Supreme Court ruled that a law banning possession and distribution of video of cruelty to animals was unconstitutional. See U.S. v. Stevens, 130 S.Ct. 1577 (2010). The intent of that law was to prevent animal cruelty but even it went too far (the NPPA signed an amicus brief advocating for the overturning of that bill).

The government can’t even prevent the possession and distribution of documents that put U.S. security interests at risk so it is hard to imagine how the public relations interests of farms would be considered more compelling than U.S. security interests.

Several years ago (2001), in a case called Bartnicki v. Vopper, the Supreme Court ruled that when a news organization lawfully obtained a recording, they could not be held liable for the publication of the details of the recording, even though the recording itself was illegally obtained. The Iowa law would make a news organization liable for publishing a recording, even if the news organization had nothing to do with obtaining the recording.

The NPPA has contacted lawmakers in Iowa regarding the bill.

Journalists and Photographers in Iowa should be very concerned about this bill. While it would no doubt be struck down in court, it is much easier for all of us if it never makes it to the governor’s desk.

From HF589:

Sec. 9.1(a)(2) makes it a crime to “Possess or distribute a record which produces an image or sound occurring at the animal facility” which was taken without permission of the owner.

Sec. 14.1.b makes it a crime to “Possess or distribute a record which produces an image or sound occurring at the crop operation which was” taken without permission of the owner.

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Ban on Photography of Animal Cruelty Struck Down

20 04 2010

Two important pieces of legal news for photographers today.

U.S. v. Stevens

The Supreme Court today overturned a law that made photographs of animal cruelty illegal. The defendant, Stevens, was the first to be convicted under a federal law that banned the creation, sale, or possession of a depiction of animal cruelty.

Much like child pornography laws, the law was designed to target the market for videos of animal cruelty, because it is often difficult to determine the person who committed the underlying cruel acts. Designed to allow law enforcement to go after “crush” videos, which appeal to a disgusting fetish for the crushing of small animals, the law in this case was applied to a video of dog fights.

The problem with the law, as evidenced by the fact that it was used against a dog fight video (not that I am any fan of that either), was that it was way too broad, and could potentially impact journalists, as well as others exercising their First Amendment rights. There was an exception for any depiction that has “serious journalistic value,” but the term “serious” excluded too much, and there was no exception for entertainment. The NPPA joined the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in filing an amicus brief.

The Supreme Court ruled that the law explicitly punished expression based on the content. Although speech restrictions based on content are allowed in a few exceptions, namely, obscenity, defamation, fraud, incitement, and speech integral to criminal conduct, and some specific narrowly tailored areas, this was not one of them, and the court declined to create a new category.

In attempting to bring videos of animal cruelty to the level of child pornography, the government proposed the following test for adding new areas of exception to the First Amendment : “Whether a given category of speech enjoys First Amendment protection depends upon a categorical balancing of the value of the speech against its societal costs.”

Justice Roberts responded, “As a free-floating test for First Amendment coverage, that sentence is startling and dangerous.” The court declined to carve out a new exception to the First Amendment for animal cruelty.

Finding that the law was far too much of a limitation on the First Amendment, Roberts said, “We read §48 to create a criminal prohibition of alarming breadth.”

There are some great lines in the opinion, including, “We would not uphold an unconstitutional statute merely because the Government promised to use it responsibly.”

Animal rights fans, take heart. The court did “not decide whether a statute limited to crush videos or other depictions of extreme animal cruelty would be constitutional. We hold only that §48 is not so limited but is instead substantially overbroad, and therefore invalid under the First Amendment.”

You can read the entire opinion, and the dissent, here. There is also a good analysis of the ruling on the SCOTUS blog.

Ken Light v. Current TV

Also important for photographers is the ongoing case of Ken Light, a San Francisco photographer who took Current TV to small claims court for “unfair competition,” after they violated his copyright. Light originally won the case, but Current TV appealed it and the court threw the case out. The reason- it was basically a copyright violation and small claims courts do not have jurisdiction over copyright, only federal court does.

I am aware of some cases where a copyright violation was successfully taken to small claims court as a breach of contract or failure to pay an invoice, but it is always a risk as the federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over copyright claims.

There is a wonderful story about the case, and the legal history of “in-line linking” on the NPPA website. I recommend it.

UPDATE: The New York Times calls the ruling a “major and muscular First Amendment ruling