In this week's edition of Boise Weekly, readers learned about Senate Bill 1337, also known as the "ag-gag" bill, which criminalizes undercover photography and filming at Idaho farms and dairies.
The bill is a response to actions by Mercy For Animals, an animal rights organization that during the course of an investigation into Bettencourt Dairies in 2012 witnessed workers and managers abusing—and in some cases sexually assaulting—dairy cows.
BW chatted with MFA Director of Investigations Matt Rice, who spearheaded the Bettencourt investigation, in which members of the organization applied for and received work at the dairy. The activists used their real names and Social Security numbers when applying for work, and performed whatever jobs were asked of them while secretly filming. They were legal employees, and under current Idaho law, their clandestine filming operations were, at most, fireable offenses. Under SB 1337, they would would have netted them large fines or even jail time.
"Our investigators are given very specific instructions: Go to work and document the conditions. They are the eyes and ears for the public, who are kept largely in the dark," Rice said.
Bettencourt Dairies was MFA's fourth dairy farm investigation (to date, MFA has investigated five). At all five dairies, MFA's investigations have revealed cruel conditions for animals and resulted in criminal convictions for workers and managers.
"The shocking thing is, every single time our documenters get hired, they find things that shock most Americans," Rice said. "It makes it very plain that there's a huge problem in the factory farming industry."
Rice said SB 1337 only highlights that problem by drawing a curtain of legality around the issue. Under the ag-gag rule, dairies could ask for criminal charges to be brought against employees who blow the whistle on animal abuse using photo or video evidence—up to a year in jail and fines of up to $5,000.
"It really is a transparent attempt by the industry to keep their cruel practices hidden from the public," he said.
The proposed law would have another effect: chilling First Amendment freedoms. MFA's investigator was employed at Bettencourt Dairies while documenting animal abuse; passing SB 1337 would amount to a de facto
nondisclosure agreement between dairy employees and management.
"What these industries want to do is have the power to put you in prison for taking a picture against their rules. It violates freedom of speech and freedom of the press. [SB 1337] will be challenged in court and it will cost taxpayers a lot of money," Rice said.