Ag Protection bill passes legal muster
BOISE — A proposed bill designed to protect Idaho’s farming industry from people who interfere with agricultural operations passes constitutional muster, according to the Idaho Attorney General’s office.
“Because the draft statute regulates conduct and does so without burdening an established speech-related right, it is likely that any First Amendment challenge would fail,” Assistant Chief Deputy Brian Kane wrote in a Feb. 5 letter to Rep. Gayle Batt, R-Wilder.
Batt, a former farmer, is a co-sponsor of the so-called Ag Protection Act, and Republican Sen. Jim Patrick, who farms about 2,000 acres near Twin Falls, is carrying the bill on the Senate side.
The bill would make it a crime to knowingly interfere with any facility or land used for agricultural production. Anyone who obtains employment with an agricultural production facility through misrepresentation or threat with the intent to cause economic harm could be charged under the law.
It would also be a crime to enter an ag facility without the owner’s consent and make an audio or video recording of the facility’s operations.
Kane stated that the most likely First Amendment-based challenge to the law would be a claim that its purpose is to chill “investigative activities by groups concerned with the health or safety” of an agricultural facility’s operations or the treatment of animals.
He said there is no authority for the proposition that a law like this that simply protects individuals or enterprises from certain types of conduct, and in doing so makes the gathering of information about them more difficult, interferes with the First Amendment’s “news gathering” rights.
“Absent (appropriate) precedent to the contrary, we believe that any First Amendment challenge predicated upon ‘news gathering’ rights would fail,” he wrote.
A challenge to a similar Utah law is pending in federal district court.
The proposed bill, which was drafted by the Idaho Dairymen’s Association, has been backed unanimously by members of Food Producers of Idaho, which includes most of the state’s largest farming groups.
Idaho Water Users Association Executive Director Norm Semanko told fellow FPI members that the bill would protect all of agriculture, not just the dairy industry.
The interference with agricultural operations “can (affect) anybody in agriculture,” he said.
Batt pointed out that in the last two years in Idaho, animal rights groups have secretly filmed alleged animal abuse at a dairy near Twin Falls, set loose 3,800 animals at a mink farm near Burley and burned a fur store near Caldwell.
“This is a very real threat,” she said. “Idaho is being proactive and saying, we’re not going to allow this type of behavior in Idaho and we’re not going to allow you to treat our citizens this way.”