- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 20, 2015

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) - Washington state became the latest battleground in the fight over whether to outlaw the unauthorized recording of farm practices after a bill drew wide-ranging criticism in front of a House committee Tuesday.

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.

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 Humane Society of the United States. “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.

The measure was patterned after an Idaho bill that passed last year. Several other states have enacted similar laws and debated the issue in recent years. Idaho and Utah are involved in protracted legal fights over their legislation.

The opposition was forceful in pushing back, and it’s not likely that the bill will advance, Public Safety chairman Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, said. “After hearing the testimony and discussing it with my colleagues, it’s pretty clear that the bill can’t move any further,” Goodman said.

It the committee fails to advance the bill, it could be revived through legislative maneuvering. But it faces several hurdles before it could become law.

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 represents the 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.”

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