Ag-Gagging the Truth

Opponents of SB 1337 say it gags whistleblowers; proponents say it protects 'the innocent.'


In April 2011, Boise Weekly visited a Jerome livestock auction as part of our award-winning investigation into Idaho dairies, where we discovered high levels of drugs found in cattle linked to Idaho dairies (BW, News, "Got Milk? Got Drugs? Got Both?" April 6, 2011). But auction officials weren't too pleased with our presence--going so far as to manhandle our photographer and call us "terrorists." If a new law being pushed by the Republican majority of the Idaho Senate had been in effect then, we would have faced up to a year behind bars and fines of up to $5,000.

The Idaho Senate voted 23-10 in favor of Senate Bill 1337--the so-called "ag-gag" measure--which particularly targets journalists who have gone undercover to reveal illegalities at Idaho farms and dairies. The bill's sponsor, Twin Falls Republican Sen. Jim Patrick, pointed to the October 2012 undercover video at Bettencourt Dairies' farm in Hansen, which showed workers kicking, beating and stomping cows inside a milking barn (BW, Citydesk, "Graphic Video Taken at Bettencourt Dairies," Oct. 10, 2012).

"The problem we have here is you can be tried and convicted in the press or on YouTube, " Patrick argued. "You don't go out to Micron and take pictures. It's against the law."

Caldwell GOP Sen. Jim Rice echoed Patrick and dubbed the measure an "anti-attack the innocent bill."

But the Democratic minority was having none of it, with Ketchum Sen. Michelle Stennett saying the bill was tantamount to an "unconstitutional form of speech restriction" that "imposes harsh penalties on whistleblowers, journalists and others that document and expose food safety issues and environmental problems."

As written, SB 1337 cracks down on anyone who is not employed by an agricultural production facility or anyone who obtains employment with such an operation through misrepresentation. If said persons, were to obtain records or enter an agricultural production facility that is not open to the public, or "make audio or video recordings of the conduct" at that facility, they face a misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in prison. Additionally, the guilty party would pay twice the value of damages to the agricultural facility.

Ultimately four Republican senators--Meridian's Clifford Bayer and Russ Fulcher, Sandpoint's Shawn Keough and Nampa's Curt McKenzie, joined six Democrats in voting no. Pocatello Democratic Sen. Roy Lacey joined 22 Republicans in voting yes, moving the bill to the Idaho House.

"In addition to jail time and fines, violators of the proposed law would have to pay double damages in restitution," Stennett said. "The measure would penalize anyone recording anything at ag operations without permission.

"This bill creates a perception that the industry is hiding animal abuse," she added.