Idaho Ag-Gag Law Imposes Longer Jail Terms on Agriculture Whistleblowers Than the Criminals They Report

Ag-gag bill sets a dangerous precedent that thwarts free speech and infringes on consumers’ rights

In 2012, Mercy For Animals recorded a video of cow abuse by workers at Bettencourt Dairies in Idaho. The activist organization presented the footage to authorities as evidence of the criminal conduct that occurred at the dairy factory.

The graphic video shows workers beating, dragging, kicking, stomping on and sexually abusing cows. (You can see the video here, but we warn you, it is very disturbing).

Instead of inspiring Idaho lawmakers to stop animal cruelty at factory farms, the film prompted them to pass a law that intimidates whistleblowers from exposing this type of criminal conduct.

This past Friday, Governor Butch Otter signed Senate Bill 1337 — popularly known as an Ag-gag bill — that renders “interference with agricultural production” a crime. Under the new law, it is now a crime to videotape criminal activity at an agricultural production facility.

The Idaho Ag-gag statute subjects whistleblowers to twice the jail term as the criminals they help catch. The man seen in the above video fondling the cow’s sexual organs and jumping on her back was sentenced to 102 days of incarceration and a $250 fine. His crime was punishable by a maximum of 180 days in jail. Whereas, the Ag-gag law imposes up to one year in jail and a $5,000 fine on a whistleblower who films the type of crime the Bettencourt Dairies worker committed.

Every American — not just animal lovers and not just Idahoans — should feel threatened by this Ag-gag law.

Consumers should hesitate before feeding their families food produced in Idaho, where documenting dangerous food production practices is considered a crime. Now that food producers know that nobody is watching — or at least the law might shut up anybody who witnesses a crime — they no longer need to be on their best behavior. Bettencourt Dairies suffered no real repercussions for the atrocities at its facilities when videotape evidence proved it maintained appalling conditions. Without the potential of getting caught, conditions on factory farms are likely to get much worse, even than the type of food production practices recorded at the Bettencourt Dairies.

Fiscal conservatives should ask why a company that permits criminal conduct and unsafe food production standards was entitled to $218,308 in taxpayer-funded farm subsidies during the past four-year period. Bettencourt Dairies received this substantial sum despite the unsanitary and unsafe conditions it maintained at its facilities. Although the most recent Farm Bill did away with direct subsidies, factory dairy farms like Bettencourt Dairies will continue receiving taxpayer money with insufficient regulatory restrictions.

Anybody who believes in First Amendment protection of free speech — particularly as it applies to speaking out against public hazards caused by corporate negligence — should feel uneasy about the precedent set by this law. The Ag-gag statute is designed specifically to intimidate whistleblowers from coming forward. It does not protect law-abiding businesses, only those companies conducting criminal activities they don’t want the public — or law enforcement — to see.

If this law is allowed to stand, why stop at agriculture? Why not incarcerate whistleblowers who report securities fraud, toxic dumping, pharmaceutical adulteration, civil rights infringements or workplace safety violations. As Idaho unconvincingly did with its Ag-gag legislation, lawmakers can disguise this intrusion on Americans' constitutional rights as protection of jobs, economic growth and corporate rights. But, the truth is obvious, Ag-gag statutes allow unethical corporations to torture animals and put human health at risk.

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