Ag-Gag Watch: Another State Introduces Unconstitutional Legislation

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Another state is trying to silence people who spotlight animal cruelty in factory farms.

A bill that would virtually close off the inside workings of the industrial agriculture system to the public has arrived in Washington state, threatening the livelihood of the farm animals living there. An ag-gag bill - anti-whistleblower legislation that bars journalists and activists (or anyone, for that matter) from revealing what goes on inside slaughterhouses and factory farms - has made its way to Washington state. A draft agriculture interference bill, House Bill 1104, was proposed in the state's House of Representatives this week, Food Safety News reports.

The law, similar to legislation in seven other states, would make it illegal for any person to enter "an agricultural production facility that is not open to the public and, without the facility owner's express written consent or pursuant to judicial process or clear statutory authorization, makes audio or video recordings of the assets or conduct of an agricultural production facility's operations..."

Kansas, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Utah, Iowa and Missouri all have anti-whistleblower laws in place, and several other states have proposed but failed to pass legislation like this. But the laws are still unclear in terms of enforcement - in fact, on Tuesday prosecutors in Utah dropped charges against four animal activists for violating the state's ag-gag law.

Entering an agricultural facility and filming what happens there would be considered a gross misdemeanor under the proposed legislation, and could be punished with up to one year in jail and up to a $5,000 fine. But national polling commissioned by the ASPCA in 2012 and conducted by the firm Lake Research Partners found that two-thirds of Americans oppose outlawing undercover investigations of animal treatment, and 54 percent strongly support efforts to reveal animal cruelty at industrial farms.

In the past year alone, several undercover farm investigations, including ones at suppliers to DiGiorno's and Koch Foods, revealed disturbing and sometimes illegal treatment of animals. In the past few weeks, an activist who spent 57 days undercover working at a "spent hen" facility in Minnesota, filmed chickens being scalded alive. With ag-gag bills in place, these investigations are illegal - and so the animal welfare violations they record continue unchecked.

First Amendment advocates and journalists consider ag-gag legislation to be unconstitutional. In 2013, the organization Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a non-profit coalition of journalists, filed a brief supporting a case brought by animal advocates against Utah's ag-gag law. The brief reads:

A court challenge under way claims Utah's Agriculture Operation Interference law violates the First Amendment right to free speech.

The Constitution of the United States reads, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of...the freedom of speech, or of the press..." Now, in front of the state's House Agriculture Committee, Washington's bill will yet again challenge that notion.