Don’t criminalize farm-abuse whistleblowing

Consider this scenario:

You’ve heard from someone who works at a meat-packing plant that animals are being treated in ways that are not allowed under federal law. But he’s afraid to blow the whistle; he can’t afford to lose his job. So you take a job there, secretly film the abuse and release the footage to local media outlets, creating an uproar that forces the owner to change his practices.

If a bill now before the Legislature, House Bill 1104, were in effect, you could be the one in trouble. Unless you got the owner’s written consent to film, you committed a gross misdemeanor – even if the facility owner is found guilty of animal cruelty. (The proposed law does not stipulate otherwise.)

In addition to facing a one-year jail sentence and a fine up to $5,000, you would be liable for up to double the “victim’s loss from the commission of the crime.” So if your video resulted in the slaughterhouse losing contracts or being forced to shut down because of his practices, what might double that “loss” come to?

Laws like HB 1104 have been passed in other states, and they’re under fire in at least two federal courts. Washington’s proposed law is sponsored by state Rep. Joe Schmick, R-Colfax, and had a hearing Tuesday in Olympia before the Public Safety Committee.

Utah’s law is scheduled for trial based on a February 2013 case. A woman was arrested and charged after recording images on her cellphone of what appears to be a sick or injured cow being pushed by a bulldozer. The charge was later dismissed after she provided evidence that she was on public property at the time, but the lawsuit challenging Utah’s law continues.

Whose interest is served by these so-called “ag-gag” laws? Certainly not the public’s. If anything, the public’s interest has been well served by undercover whistleblowers who have filmed sometimes illegal activity. Their actions have resulted in improvements to food quality, worker safety and treatment of animals.

Examples include a 2008 California case in which sick animals were illegally slaughtered for the National School Lunch Program, resulting in the second largest meat recall in U.S. history. A 2012 case resulted in cruelty convictions for eight employees of a Wyoming pig farm who had been torturing animals.

Some food producers have reacted to whistleblowers’ reports by changing their practices. The egg industry, for example, is moving away from certain types of cages that limit hens’ mobility. But others have reacted by going after the messenger, using friendly legislators to enact laws that better serve the industry than the public.

There’s also a First Amendment right to consider. These types of bills attempt to quash the free distribution of information through intimidation, sometimes making it illegal to even possess secretly gathered recordings.

Laws that criminalize physical destruction of property by animal rights advocates are one thing. It’s quite another to criminalize the reporting of facts that might be of public interest. Legislators should kill this bill – quickly.