“Freedom of speech, that’s some @#$%^& *&^%$#’ $%^&&*&^%!”

Before Ice T was an ironic regular as a police detective on Law and Order and a cuddly reality TV star, he had a few run ins with freedom of speech.  Even before he faced security boycotts by police at his concerts for his song, Cop Killer, in the early 90’s, his analysis of the state of freedom of speech in late 1980’s is essentially unprintable.  The alternate, less profanity ridden verse sums up the right as freedom of speech- just watch what you say.

If pressed, I would offer the First Amendment of the US Constitution the greatest 45 words written by humans.  Ever. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”  This sentence separates us from every other nation on earth, as no other nation provides such a bold and unequivocal affirmation of both our right to our beliefs and to share those beliefs without government intervention or censorship.

There is plenty of permissible censorship, including self-censorship, as I demonstrated above.  The government may not be able to tell me I can’t say it, but common sense does.  But common sense seems not to be an impediment for legislatures across the United States, including right here in Pennsylvania.  Yesterday I received an email from Senator Mike Brubaker which seemed a virtual celebration of a void of common sense.

He announced, “I recently introduced legislation that would protect Pennsylvania agricultural operations by prohibiting photos and video recordings without the owner’s consent.”  His goal seems to be to “protect” farmers- why just farmers, by the way? – from people taking pictures of their operations without permission.  He says he introduced the bill to protect farmers from “the damage that unauthorized taping and photos can cause.”  Fair enough.

But I will admit I get a little uncomfortable when someone in the government starts protecting me from the damage that information can cause.  So I went to the Senate website to find the bill, to no avail.  It isn’t listed (as of 9:30 AM, 9/28/12). So I will follow Senator Brubaker’s lead, since he announced how awesome it is that he introduced legislation we can’t yet read that protects farmers by explicitly violating the First Amendment of the US Constitution, by telling you why this is a terrible idea for consumers, animals, and even farmers.

First, there is no need for this law.  We have freedom of speech, but we also have laws allowing for prosecution of trespass and for libel or slander.  Brubaker mentioned a case, “not the first such incident in our area”, where unauthorized video of a farm was taken.  He claims that the video showed no illegal activity yet it took a “heavy toll” on the business.  Aside from the lack of facts to back up his claim, if nothing was shown which was not “at or above industry-best practices”, what exactly was the problem?

Why don’t we have the right to see the quality of operations at places which are at the acceptable standards?  And if these “industry-best” standards are stomach churning, why shouldn’t we be able to make a decision on what we will purchase or if we will seek a higher or different level of standards and purchase, let’s say, free range eggs rather than battery raised eggs?

Yes, that might have a negative impact on the “industry-best” battery egg producer.  But why should any business be protected from the will of the consumer and our right to buy what we are comfortable buying?  If these farms are so wonderfully high standard, what are they ashamed of and why do they need Senator Brubaker to trample on our Bill of Rights to offer that protection?  Are we to live as they do throughout the Middle East, protected from knowledge in order to preserve the status quo?

Second, although I can’t read the Senators bill, many similar bills did not provide exemptions for even police officers investigating crimes or the Press.  A quick skim of the Constitution left me unable to find the part which allows a business to obtain protection against factual reporting of news or criminal investigation.  Yet it sounds like this bill would.  Bills like this would make reporting on actual conditions within a farm a crime and make award winning investigative journalists like Brian Ross a criminal.  They would make investigations of reported crimes on these farms- and please remember that Puppy Mills are “farms” in Pennsylvania- a crime.

We all know that eating animals comes with some unpleasant aspects.  I eat meat, dairy and eggs.  But I try to ensure that I at least choose food from producers and production techniques which keep those unpleasant aspects to a minimum.  I and my family have a right to know what the conditions are at the places providing us- selling us- our food.

Any business which is so terrified of have its operations photographed for fear that the consumer seeing them would make the consumer choose another business doesn’t need civil rights violating protections, it needs to ask itself why it can’t stand by what it does in the public spot light.  There are many, many farms and farmers who operate proudly and openly- heck, some put their own pictures up for all to see!-, and don’t need to hide behind weasel words like “meeting industry-best practices” and “legitimate operations”.  They just run great farms.  We should buy from great farmers and they shouldn’t be at a disadvantage because the good enough farmers are permitted to hide their operations from the consumers.  All farms are not created equal.

These bills are actually about protecting giant corporations and factory farms.  They are about limiting our access to information and prohibiting us from exercising our First Amendment right to free speech.  Pictures and video are speech.  Sharing those pictures is speech.  Sharing our opinion about those pictures or exercising our right not to patronize a business as a result of those pictures is speech.  And the government may not abridge our right to speech, Senator Brubaker.  Doing so makes our rights a joke and makes us a lot more like Syria or Iran, which “protect” their people from information, too.

Ice ended his song a little less profanely.  I think it’s a fair observation for the Pennsylvania legislature: “Freedom of Speech, let ’em take it from me, next they’ll take it from you, then what you gonna do?…We only got one right left in the world today, let me have it or throw The Constitution away.”