The Arkansas Senate on Wednesday approved a bill that would let companies sue anyone, including employees, if they share a secretly made videotape aimed at harming a business owner. The bill was set up to target animal rights activists but opponents say the bill goes too far and could threaten nearly all whistleblowers.
Sen. Gary Stubblefield says there are other state and federal laws that can protect those who expose illegal practices. The dairy farmer said his bill targets people who obtain material from nonpublic areas of commercial property and release the material intending to do harm.
"This bill does nothing to stop whistleblowers," Stubblefield said. "If it was illegal before this bill, it will be illegal after this bill."
Animal-welfare groups say the bill goes too far, suggesting it could shield wrongdoing at a daycare center or food-processing plant
"It's really going to chill free speech," said Alicia Prygoski, public policy coordinator for farm animal protection at the Humane Society of the United States. She said Wednesday that farm workers, waiters or food plant employees likely wouldn't know which other laws might pertain to them.
"If you have a multi-million-dollar company taking on someone making minimum wage, you can kind of tell how that will turn out," she said.
In recent years, after the proliferation of cellphone cameras, a number of animal rights groups have released videos showing alleged mistreatment at livestock operations — though at times the videos have also shown common acceptable farming practices.
Stubblefield said his bill would properly apply to restaurant owners hoping to protect themselves from a disgruntled employee who makes a mess in the kitchen and then photographs it. Other businesses could use the law to protect their propriety information, he said.
Seven states have adopted laws targeting surreptitious recordings in agricultural settings, according to Prygoski, but the animal rights groups say Arkansas' bill strays too far.
"Although 'ag-gag' bills are primarily intended to silence animal protection groups, the Arkansas bill is written so broadly it could be used to sue basically anyone," said Cody Carlson, a lawyer for Mercy for Animals.
"Workers who expose abuse at daycare facilities ... could be bankrupted. Restaurant employees who speak out about tainted food sales could end up on the hook for the restaurant's financial losses," he said in a statement.
The bill was amended in the Senate so it would not apply to health care providers or facilities like nursing homes. It must go back to the House.