This perspective and information comes from the deputy director of the Michigan Department of Agriculture's (MDA) Environmental Stewardship Division, which answers the Right to Farm hotline, and MDA Director Dan Wyant:
The recent story of a southern Michigan man charged with making obscene phone calls to state employees on a Michigan Department of Agriculture (MDA)-run hotline has raised many questions regarding the role of state government as it communicates with the public. Lost in the coverage of this case is the true heart of the matter: while citizens must be encouraged to express their opinions - and even their frustrations - state workers should not be the target of obscenities, intimidation or threats of violence; and state government cannot ignore its obligation to protect the personal safety of its valued workers.
The state agriculture department is deeply committed to identifying, promoting and ensuring farming practices that protect the environment. Many innovative Michigan agriculture pollution prevention programs have achieved significant results and are now used by other states as models. Furthermore, MDA has worked hard to make strides in addressing the issues that accompany changes in farming practices and increased rural population densities, especially as they relate to livestock operations. It is important to note that protecting and enhancing our air, soil and water quality is the very foundation for the success and viability of the state's food and agriculture industries.
This commitment to preserving our natural resources is also why MDA developed a hotline to allow citizens to report concerns and suspected farming violations. Ultimately, the hotline gives residents a way to voice concerns and file complaints, and helps alert MDA to potential environmental problems in the countryside. This complaint response mechanism helps ensure Michigan's vital agriculture industry operates in harmony with our precious natural resources. Aided by the use of this hotline, the vast majority of complaints are resolved and conflicts between farm and non-farm neighbors are effectively abated.
MDA strongly supports inclusive government and has a true dedication to help Michigan citizens resolve problems. We work hard to specifically establish and maintain communication links that allow people to conveniently share their thoughts and concerns. We understand there will be frustration at times and are certainly not unaccustomed to occasional outbursts or "colorful" language from callers.
Over the course of days, weeks and months, an individual repeatedly made dozens and dozens of phone calls to the hotline. His complaints were handled according to Michigan's laws and regulations, and our staff clearly explained that the farm in question is under enforcement action by the state Department of Environmental Quality to correct its environmental problems, including discharges and odor. In spite of this legal corrective action, the frequency and intensity of the calls continued. While some of the tamer examples made published accounts, the majority were extremely obscene and vulgar and, in some cases, threatening. Numerous proactive attempts were made by MDA's program managers and supervisors to stem the issue, repeatedly requesting the individual to refrain from this abusive behavior that was extremely unsettling to Department staff.
Unfortunately, there comes a point when lines are clearly crossed and we must act to ensure the safety of our valued employees. When it comes to the safety of the people who work hard for us every day, we have an obligation to err on the side of caution. Frustration is understandable, but basic rules of interpersonal conduct must apply. MDA did the responsible thing by reporting the incidents to local law enforcement. Our only goal was simply to stop the vulgar and harassing behavior. However, the Michigan State Police investigated, and found something serious and credible enough to send it to the Ingham County Prosecutor's office. The Prosecutor's Office investigated, and found something concerning and credible enough that it brought charges.
It has been suggested that this issue is a question of government impinging on an individual's free speech. As the agency offering the hotline that encourages Michigan residents to call and share their concerns, it should be clear that MDA strongly and actively supports that constitutionally-protected right.
But rights also carry with them some basic responsibilities. All of us, from top-ranking government officials to every private citizen in the state, are responsible for what we say. Our government was formed on principles of liberty, but our society is held together by an even more basic tenet of what represents acceptable conduct between people.
The hotline remains open, and we continue to encourage Michigan residents with questions, concerns or complaints about farming operations to contact MDA to share those with us to follow up on. We ask only that callers please remember to respect their fellow citizens.