Ted S. Warren / AP

‘Ag-gag’ proposal meets torrent of opposition in Washington state

Based on controversial Idaho law, bill would make it a crime to trespass on agricultural facility to record animal abuse

River’s Wish Sanctuary is where forgotten animals are found again — horses that were tied to trees and neglected, dogs from puppy mills and rabbits, cats, pigs and ducks left behind when owners moved away. 

But Kit Jagoda, a co-founder and the director of River’s Wish, a 65-acre rescue center in eastern Washington, says “ag-gag” legislation introduced earlier this week in the Washington House of Representatives would, if passed, prevent her from saving some animals.

On Tuesday, Rep. Joe Schmick, R-Colfax, presented House Bill 1104 for a public hearing before the Public Safety Committee. The proposed legislation would make it a crime for anyone to trespass onto the premises of an agricultural facility in Washington and record activity occurring there.

“Frankly, this is a lot of the same protections you would have in your home,” Schmick said. “If someone broke into your home by these same ways, you’d be up in arms and really upset. I’m just trying to extend those same protections to the farmer, grower and rancher.”

Jagoda says that ag-gag laws prevent her from saving more animals and that such laws deter free speech and criminalize whistleblowers looking to expose illegal practices and working conditions.

“The ag-gag laws hinder us from learning of animals [that] are being mistreated and in need of rescue,” she said. “River’s Wish has rescued animals who came to our attention because of undercover reporting … Our outreach efforts that rely on free speech are adversely impacted, as the ag-gag law cuts off the supply of investigative footage.”

Schmick said his bill was based on a controversial 2014 Idaho ag-gag law. But when it comes to animal rights issues, Washington and Idaho couldn’t be more different, and opponents of the bill say that may be where Schmick went wrong.

Washington was ranked seventh best by the Humane Society of America in 2013 for its animal protection laws; Idaho tied for dead last. While several states have ag-gag laws on the books, Idaho’s is embroiled in lawsuit and controversy.

Last year Idaho found itself in the crosshairs of animal rights activists after Mercy for Animals documented horrific treatment of cows at southern Idaho’s Bettencourt Dairy. Footage showed the animals being beaten, kicked, punched, dragged by their necks behind tractors and sexually abused. Bettencourt immediately fired the employees involved and issued apologies.

But then Idaho legislators used those videos to buttress arguments that people who make covert videos of agricultural operations are looking to damage those businesses and that farmers should be protected from them. Gov. Butch Otter agreed and signed the bill into law a mere two days after the bill cleared the House floor. “My signature today reflects my confidence,” he said. “No animal rights organization cares more or has more at stake than Idaho farmers and ranchers do.”

Idaho soon found a lawsuit in its lap, filed by a crowd of parties ranging from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) to Jagoda’s small River’s Wish Sanctuary. The suit claims the law criminalizes free speech. In September a judge agreed, noting the law is “ripe for review” and may “restrict more protected speech than necessary.”

“To model [the Washington bill] after the Idaho bill, which is wrapped up in court with a very strong decision from a federal judge saying it’s unconstitutional, makes it a curious template,” Matthew Liebman, a senior ALDF attorney, said of Schmick’s bill.

That proved true Tuesday after more than a dozen people — attorneys, farmworkers, labor advocates and animal rights activists — testified against the adoption of an ag-gag bill in Washington.

Shawn Newman, a former assistant attorney general, provided written testimony strongly opposing such a law. “What this does is put the iron hand of the state on the throat of people who’ve had enough courage to report what they think is inappropriate,” he said later by phone. “It’s one thing to tell an employee that [he or she] can get fired. It’s another thing to say, ‘A prosecutor is going to prosecute you, and you’re going to do jail time.’ The idea is to shut up whistleblowers.”

By the end of the day, Schmick’s communications director declined to comment further on the bill.

But perhaps the real sign of defeat was when one of the bill’s co-sponsors, Republican floor leader Rep. J.T. Wilcox, pulled his name from the proposal. His family owns Wilcox Family farms, which was cited for serious safety violations in 2013 and saw a worker crushed to death under 500 tons of corn when a silo collapsed.

“I don’t think it’s going to see a place where I get to vote for it,” he told The Seattle Times.

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