Bill to jail abuse-filming activists passes Idaho House

A bill to jail people who secretly film animal abuse at Idaho's agricultural facilities is headed to Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter's desk.

What foes of the measure dub the "ag gag bill" passed the House 56-14 Wednesday afternoon with a near party-line split. The Senate backed it 23-10 earlier this month.

If Otter signs the bill into law, anyone who films or records on an agricultural operation without permission will face up to a year in jail. That's double the maximum penalty for animal cruelty under Idaho law.

The bill, promoted heavily by Idaho's dairy industry, comes after videos released by Los Angeles-based vegetarian and animal rights group Mercy for Animals showed workers at Bettencourt Dairy beating, stomping and sexually abusing cows in 2012. An activist secretly filmed the abuse after getting a job at the dairy.

Backers of the bill say it halts media-savvy activists from unfairly damaging the reputation of Idaho farmers using ill-gotten footage of wrongdoing. The Mercy for Animals group responsible for the videos, for example, continued to release and publicize the recordings even after the workers who abused dairy cows were fired and prosecuted in a bid to persuade Bettencourt's customers to quit buying from his operation.

"This is about someone trying to ruin a business of someone ... and ruin their life," said Rep. Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell.

Proponents of the bill say they're not trying to keep abuse or safety violations under wraps. Instead, they hope to protect the property rights of agriculture operations' owners.

"If this legislation was to cover up animal abuse, I'd vote against it," Rep. Ken Andrus, R-Lava Hot Springs, said, calling it a matter of privacy. "Do you want to live continually with the idea in the back of your mind that people may be in your yard, in your house, in your bedroom gathering information about you?"

But opponents of the bill said legislation to draw a curtain over one industry gives the rest of the nation the idea that the Gem State has something to hide. Rep. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, argued the antidote to the increased scrutiny of agricultural operations was more transparency, not a scramble to block operations from outside eyes.

And Rep. Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, said it would be almost impossible to prove allegations of abuse without some type of recording, and noted the bill wouldn't protect someone who handed video evidence over to police instead of the media. Shielding the industry from embarrassment by jailing those who expose wrongdoing was a violation of the First Amendment, she said.

"The answer is not to imprison the people who are criticizing you," Rubel said. "This would put agriculture in a very unique position to enforce and really shut down the collection of information that they didn't like. It gives them an incredible hammer to lock someone up for a year for taking information they're not supposed to take."

Utah has passed a similar ag gag law that is now being challenged in U.S. District Court on free speech grounds. Similar measures have been before lawmakers in other states, too, though places like California have rejected them.

Mercy for Animals delivered a petition bearing 110,000 signatures to Otter's office Wednesday, urging him to veto the bill.

Jon Hanian, the governor's spokesman, said staff members were going through the signatures — at least 2,475 were from Idaho residents — but Otter has not yet indicated his intentions.