About ten years ago while driving from Los Angeles to San Francisco along Interstate 5, we stopped and took some photographs of the Harris Ranch, a huge feedlot operation which provides a lot of meat for California fast food outlets.
We were on a public street, and pulled over and took several shots. (Link at end of article below to original story and photos.)
While taking the shots, a small dark sedan pulled up behind our van and parked. The man in the vehicle didn't get out, just watched us (see photo below of black car behind us).
A few days later, I received a phone message from a detective in the Fresno County Sheriff's Office, wishing to speak with me. I called him back, and "Special Detective Asselin" told me Harris Ranch had reported my license plate and said I had been engaged in "suspicious activity," and he said that on viewing my website, he noticed I was somehow associated with an organization called Earthsave.
After questioning me about Vegsource, Earthsave and why I was taking photographs of what must be the single largest taxpayer in Fresno County (i.e. someone the Fresno County Sheriff's office obviously feels it must keep happy), I guess Detective Asselin was satisfied that I wasn't planning to try to blow something up.
That was the old days...the cops looking out for big corporate farms, harassing people who took photos of the operation.
Today in Florda they're taking it a step further.
A new law SB1246 has been introduced which will make it a felony to do what I did, to simply be on a public street and take a photo of a factory farm or puppy mill, unless you have written permission of the corporation whose farm you snap.
That's right, if Republican state Senator Jim Norman of Florida has his way, it will be a felony to photograph from public property or even set foot onto a factory farm -- and not just any felony, but a first-degree felony, which carries a mandatory minimum of 25 years in prison.
First-degree felonies in Florida include drug trafficking, child molestation, rape, murder -- and soon, photography.
And again, the law also makes it a first-degree felony if you simply trespass on a factory farm or puppy mill, without written consent.
Here is what the law states, as proposed by Florida Republican Senator Norman:
(1) A person who enters onto a farm or other property where legitimate agriculture operations are being conducted without the written consent of the owner, or an authorized representative of the owner, commits a felony of the first degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082, s. 775.083, or s. 775.084, Florida Statutes.
(2) A person who photographs, video records, or otherwise produces images or pictorial records, digital or otherwise, at or of a farm or other property where legitimate agriculture operations are being conducted without the written consent of the owner, or an authorized representative of the owner, commits a felony of the first degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082, s. 775.083, or s. 775.084, Florida Statutes.
(3) As used in this section, the term “farm” includes any tract of land cultivated for the purpose of agricultural production, the raising and breeding of domestic animals, or the storage of a commodity.
Note that subsection 2 is independent of subsection 1 — photographing farms would be made a felony even if the photographer isn’t trespassing (for instance, because he’s on a public road, or lawfully on neighboring property). And not just any felony — a first-degree felony, which is the highest degree felony other than capital crimes and “life felonies” (which carry a mandatory minimum of 25 years in prison). The precise term of imprisonment would be dictated by the Florida Sentencing Guidelines, but the maximum would be 30 years.
Plus subsection 1 has problems of its own. First, it makes simple trespasses into serious felonies. Second, it covers even behavior that isn’t trespassing, because it covers visits that are based on oral permission (e.g., going to a party at somebody’s farm), and visits that would generally be seen as implicitly permitted or otherwise nontrespassory (e.g., stopping at someone’s farm to ask for directions, or to sell Girl Scout cookies). And as stated, this law protects puppy mills from being photographed in any way as well, as it prohibits photography of "farms" involved in "the raising or breeding of domestic animals."
As one of our readers expressed: so the law allows you to protest in ugly and profane ways at the funeral of a fallen US soldier, but you go to jail for 30 years if you photograph a cow from a public street? Yes, the highway still belongs to the people -- for now. (Republicans are undoubtedly working to privatize that, as well.)
It would seem this should be a First Amendment issue which Florida would have a hard time making stick, though some people could spend a long time in jail while a group like the ACLU worked to have such a law overturned.
Still, you look at the number of freedoms taken away by the Patriot Act and Homeland Security, and it's not such an illogical next step.
Here is a link to the original story from 10 years ago, when we were investigated and interrogated simply for simply snapping some shots of a factory farm from the side of a public road: A "Tail" of Harris Ranch with photos