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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Editorial: Ag-gag bill isn’t in public’s best interest

HB1104 “creates the crime of interference with agricultural production” according to the one-line digest of the bill, which will be heard today by the House Committee on Public Safety.

Public Safety is a good place for this bill to start. And end.

HB1104 is an “ag-gag” bill intended to squelch revelations about cruel or unsafe conditions in the facilities that process our food.

This bill would not protect the public’s safety. It would shield producers who may be jeopardizing public health.

Those producers are few. The overwhelming majority want to deliver quality food grown and processed in sanitary and humane facilities. Most reports of food-caused illness are the result of carelessness, not deliberate actions.

But images of industrial-scale agriculture can be unsettling. Video of abused livestock and poultry is revolting. Exposés of animal cruelty have led to reforms since the publication of Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” in 1906.

Food inspection has come a long way since then, and sensitivities have become more tender. For example, California on Jan. 1 implemented a law that requires eggs sold there come from chickens confined to bigger cages.

Industry does not enjoy the scrutiny, so it wants to turn off the cameras and deter whistleblowers by making it a crime to gain access to a farm facility or records under false pretenses. But trespass – and we already have laws against trespass – is not necessarily required to be in violation of the law.

It can be broken if someone “intentionally causes economic or physical injury to the agricultural production facility’s operations …” So just accusing a facility of misbehavior of any sort that might cost its owners money would be a crime. Doesn’t matter if it’s true or false.

Well, if it’s false, there are libel and slander laws that punish those offenses. And if true, well, truth has been the best defense against libel claims going back almost 300 years.

The farm industry and foes of government regulation have been pushing ag-gag laws in many states, mostly unsuccessfully. Animal rights advocates and the American Civil Liberties Union have successfully argued that some of these laws suppress First Amendment rights.

Idaho, which passed a bill last year, is already in court, and not doing well. In refusing to dismiss a lawsuit challenging the law, U.S. District Court Judge B. Lynn Winfill summarized the conflicting values well:

“The state therefore must justify a need to serve its interest in protecting private property through targeting protected speech. Laws that restrict more protected speech than necessary violate the First Amendment.”

Idaho’s law is hardly an example of balance. A violation could mean a year in prison and a $5,000 fine. A first-time offender of animal cruelty laws could get six months.

Washington legislators should steer clear of HB1104. It’s unnecessary, probably unconstitutional and an offense to Washingtonians who believe light is the best disinfectant.

The Public Safety committee should stop this proposal before it gets out of the barn.