An Eastern Washington legislator has introduced a bill emulating Idaho’s “ag-gag” law, which criminalizes undercover taping at agricultural operations.
“I view it as a way to protect the farmer,” said state Rep. Joe Schmick, a Colfax Republican.
If House Bill 1104 becomes law, anyone who records activities at a agricultural business without the owner’s consent would be committing a new crime, interfering with agricultural production.
A violator would be guilty of a gross misdemeanor and could be sent to jail for up to a year and fined $5,000, the same maximum penalty as Idaho’s law.
“I would like to see a strong deterrent,” Schmick said.
Schmick said he decided to file the bill after reading about Idaho’s law. “A lot of this bill is based upon that,” he said.
Idaho in early 2014 became the seventh state to adopt an ag-gag law.
The law came after a Los Angeles-based animal rights group, Mercy For Animals, released a video in 2012 showing workers at an Idaho dairy beating cows. One worker was sentenced to nine days on a sheriff’s work crew for animal abuse. The dairy fired five workers.
Animal rights and civil rights groups have sued to overturn the law. A federal judge ruled in September that the suit raises legitimate constitutional questions and allowed it to proceed.
The American Civil Liberties of Idaho is among the groups suing. ACLU of Washington spokesman Doug Honig said the group hasn’t reviewed Schmick’s bill.
“If it is a knock-off of Idaho’s law, we would definitely oppose it because the Constitution protects free speech and free press and that would include journalistic exposes on farm practices,” he said.
Schmick said he wants to protect agriculture practices from being distorted to look like abuse.
“You can edit anything to make it look really bad,” he said.
Washington Farm Bureau director of government relations Tom Davis said Scmick’s bill provides a starting point for discussing a complicated issue.
He called animal abuse “inexcusable,” but said producers have legitimate concerns about animal-rights activists misrepresenting themselves to obtain jobs. “It puts other employees potentially in danger, as well as the families” who own farms, he said.
“We support the concept (of Schmick’s bill). There’s no doubt about it. But it’s such an important issue, it’s one we definitely want to work closely with segments of the ag industry on,” he said.
The Legislature convenes for its 2015 session Monday. The bill has not yet been assigned to a committee.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, said he would like for the bill to at least get a hearing. “It presents some issues, like freedom of the press,” he said. “It’s an interesting and potentially difficult bill to sort out as a legislator.”