OLYMPIA, Wash. — Washington state has become the latest to join the fight over whether to outlaw the unauthorized recording of farm practices after a bill introduced in a House committee Tuesday drew wide-ranging criticism.
Rep. Joe Schmick, a Colfax Republican, said the measure was necessary to prevent animal rights activists from distorting footage of legitimate farm work to "look like the absolute worst thing ever."
"Every farmer — and I'm speaking as a farmer — is scared to death of misrepresentation when we're doing everything right," Schmick said.
But a series of opponents, including labor organizers and animal rights advocates, urged the House Public Safety Committee to kill the bill, saying "ag-gag" measures chill free speech, cover up abuse and deter whistleblowers.
"This bill is incredibly bad policy, and it really does not protect farmers," said Matthew Dominguez, a public policy manager with the national Humane Society. "It only protects bad actors."
The proposal would make it a crime to interfere with agricultural production and would extend "a lot of the same protections you would have in your home" to the state's farmers and ranchers, Schmick said.
It's not clear whether the bill will make it out of the committee, and it would face several legislative hurdles before it could become law.
The measure was patterned after an Idaho plan that passed last year. Eight states have such legislation, but Idaho and Utah are involved in protracted legal fights over the laws.
Claire Tonry, a Seattle environmental lawyer, called the Washington bill "absolutely antithetical to public safety and public health." She said cases of animal abuse and environmental damage would go undetected if it passes.
"The chilling effect that this legislation would have on my clients really can't be overstated," said Tonry, who Puget Soundkeeper Alliance and the Washington Environmental Council.
After the hearing, House Republican Floor Leader J.T. Wilcox, whose family operates Wilcox Family Farms, said he had removed his name from co-sponsorship of the bill. He said he doubted the measure would advance very far.
"It seemed to me the reception was not strong, was not favorable in committee," the Yelm Republican said. "But we'll see."