Mar 112011

I could be driving along one of the back roads of Florida and suddenly see a barn exquisitely lit by the setting sun. I stop the car and take several photographs to ensure that I capture the scene exactly right.

Moments later I am surrounded by police cars and placed under arrest to face a first-degree felony charge that carries a 30-year prison sentence and $10,000 fine.

Does that sound too crazy? Not if a bill before the Florida State Legislature gets passed.

Senate Bill 1246 by Sen. Jim Norman, R-Tampa, would make it a first-degree felony to photograph a farm without first obtaining written permission from the owner. A farm is defined as any land “cultivated for the purpose of agricultural production, the raising and breeding of domestic animals or the storage of a commodity”.

If the bill is approved, it will come into effect on July 1 this year.

The Florida Tribune broke the story and it has since been followed by PhotoRadar and appeared in the Canon EOS 1D/1Ds/5D forum of DPReview.

Media law experts say the ban would violate freedoms protected in the U. S. Constitution. But Wilton Simpson, a farmer who lives in Norman’s district, said the bill is needed to protect the property rights of farmers and the “intellectual property” involving farm operations.

He is concerned that members of PETA could pose as farm workers in order to secretly film agricultural operations.

Jeff Kerr, general counsel for PETA, said the state should be ashamed that such a bill would be introduced.

“Sen. Norman should be filing bills to throw the doors of animal producers wide open to show the public where their food comes from rather than criminalizing those who would show animal cruelty,” he said.

Judy Dalglish, executive director for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said shooting property from a roadside or from the air is legal. The bill “is just flat-out unconstitutional not to mention stupid,” she said. 

Simpson agreed the bill would make it illegal to photograph a farm from a roadside without written permission but did not think that “innocent” roadside photography would be prosecuted even if the bill is passed as introduced. 

“Farmers are a common-sense people,” he said. “A tourist who stops and takes a picture of cows — I would not imagine any farmer in the state of Florida cares about that at all.” 

Sen. Norman has since gone to ground and has been unavailable for comment.

Legislation of this kind begs the question, what is it that farmers have to have hide? And if they are hiding something, doesn’t the public deserve the right to know?

Whatever happened to America, Land of the Free?