House Republican Joe Schmick
  • House Republican Joe Schmick

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So far, eight US states have passed "ag-gag" laws, making documentation of what happens on ranches and farms without the owner's written consent a crime.

State representative Joe Schmick (R-Colfax) would like Washington to become the ninth. On Monday, he introduced House Bill 1104, titled "creating the crime of interference with agricultural production."

Ag-gag bills, which are spreading through the US partly thanks to the Koch brothers–backed American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC, also known as the "corporate bill mill"), would essentially criminalize those slaughterhouse videos that have probably done more to popularize vegetarianism and veganism than anything else in the US.

"I view it as a way to protect the farmer," Rep. Schmick was quoted as saying in the Capital Press. "You can edit anything to make it look really bad." (Rep. Schmick has ties to ALEC and, as of 2010, was listed as a member of its national "energy, environment, and agriculture task force.")

Activists and independent investigators say undercover video is necessary to keep the agriculture industry in check where government inspections fail to do the job—and that instead of hurting the farmer, they're a way to protect the public. In 2008, such video led to the largest beef recall in US history when someone took video of "downer" cattle being processed for human consumption—including sales to school lunch programs—despite the USDA's insistence that it had been "continuously" monitoring the Westland/Hallmark Meat Packing Company, which had passed 17 independent audits a few years prior. (The company eventually agreed on a $500 million settlement.)

But even if you disregard the value of undercover work, the laws have been applied to arrest and prosecute people who've filmed or photographed agricultural facilities from public roads, documenting nothing more than what is in plain view. (In the 1984 case Oliver v. United States, the Supreme Court wrote: "Open fields do not provide the setting for those intimate activities that the Amendment is intended to shelter from government interference or surveillance. There is no societal interest in protecting the privacy of those activities, such as the cultivation of crops, that occur in open fields.") In the first ever ag-gag case—which involved filming from a public road—prosecutors eventually moved to drop the charges after reporters picked up the story.

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Journalist (and recently announced TED senior fellow) Will Potter has been following ag-gag laws as they've popped up in state legislatures. You can read lots more about them—where they came from, how they're used—over on his site Green Is the New Red.

For now, we'll have to wait and see how the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives does with HB 1104.

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