Harsh response to measure some see as an 'ag-gag' bill

A state legislator wants to protect farmers from actions interfering with agricultural production. Supporters say farmers feel harassed. Critics see a threat to whistleblowers.
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Rep. Joe Schmick at a 2013 hearing

A state legislator wants to protect farmers from actions interfering with agricultural production. Supporters say farmers feel harassed. Critics see a threat to whistleblowers.

A bill to create the crime of interfering with agricultural production generally got slammed Tuesday in a Washington House Public Safety Committee hearing.

Rep. Joe Schmick, R-Colfax, introduced the bill to make it a crime for a non-employee of an agricultural facility to enter it by force, threats, trespassing or misrepresentation. The person would also commit the proposed new crime by having the intent to cause economic or physical injury to the facility or its workers. The proposed crime would be a gross misdemeanor punishable by up to 364 days in jail or a $5,000 fine or both. Also, if convicted, that person would be liable for up to twice the damages he or she caused to the agricultural facility.

Schmick noted that individuals enjoy considerable protections in their homes. "I'm trying to extend those protections to farmers, growers and ranchers," he said. 

Schmick and Rep. David Taylor, R-Moxee, who supports the bill, specifically noted that the proposed legislation addresses videos of farm activities taken by agriculture industry critics. "I've seen videos taken that seem very innocuous, but with a few edits made things seem worse," Schmick said. He added, "Every farmer is scared of misrepresentation, even though he is doing everything right."

Taylor said, "Our producers around the state face harassment at certain levels."

Sixteen people testified against Schmick's bill, arguing it would harm whistleblowers, is a direct copy of bills in other states and would protect corporations from being held responsible for misdeeds. The critics included representatives from farm workers and immigrant groups, the Washington State Labor Council, plus animal rights and environmental organizations. Besides Taylor, no one testified in favor of Schmick's bill.

Schmick noted the absence of supporters at the hearing: "The lack of farmers and growers is because they are scared of repercussions, and I think that is sad."

Three committee members — Reps. Brad Klippert, R-Kennewick, Dave Hayes, R- Camano Island, and Dan Griffey, R-Allyn — appeared to support Schmick's bill. Klippert compared it to extending constitutional protections on homes to private agriculture property. Griffey said: "To me, this is a no-brainer bill to protect people's property."

However, committee chair Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, said, "This bill criminalizes the intentions of someone going on to a farm and exposing illegal activities." Teresa Mosqueda of the Washington State Labor Council said, "We must not criminalize those who bring these abuses to light." Matthew Dominguez of the Human Society of the United States added; "It doesn't protect farmers. It protects bad actors."

"The intended consequences are to stop undercover investigations from happening," said committee member Rep. Sherry Appleton, D-Poulsbo.

Critics described the proposed legislation as an example of an "ag-gag" bill in which a state legislature passes laws against agricultural whistleblowing activities. Idaho passed one of the bills in 2014, making it one of more than a half-dozen states with some type of measure to control documentation of farm activities, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Many more have been introduced, including several this year, according to the society.

"A bill like this does not come from family farmers, but comes from big industry," contended Edgar Franks of the Community-To-Community Development organizations of Bellingham, which get involved in farm labor issues. He alleged Schmick's bill is based on a model from the American Legislative Exchange Council, a national organization based in Virginia that researches and provides templates for business friendly legislation across the country.

Representatives from farm workers groups argued that the bill would have a chilling effect on union organizing activities because they could be construed as economically harming an agricultural facility. Mosqueda said the bill's language could outlaw boycotts because those are a form of economic pressure and injury against an agricultural business. Some people testified Tuesday that existing trespassing, theft and vandalism laws already protect farms and agri-businesses.

Later Tuesday, House Minority Floor Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, said he doubted the bill would reach the House floor. He said, "It seemed to me that the reception was not strong, not favorable in committee."

For exclusive coverage of the state government, check out Crosscut's Under the Dome page.


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About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at johnstang_8@hotmail.com and on Twitter at @johnstang_8