Prosecutors in Iron County, Utah, have dropped charges against four animal rights activists initially accused of violating that state’s so-called “ag-gag” law.

As you probably remember, in September four animal activists from California went to the Circle Four pig production facilities — let’s not pretend they’re “farms” — with the intent of documenting the life (and death, of course) of a pig.

That’s not surprising: Circle Four Farms has been the target of relentless protesting since its inception, and the only reason those campaigns haven’t gained widespread media coverage is that the company’s Utah facilities are located in the middle of nowhere, hours by car from anything resembling a city.

According to NPR affiliate KUER-FM, the activists, who all pleaded not guilty, were members of the group Farm Animal Rights Movement. They were charged with two class B misdemeanors: interference with an agricultural operation and criminal trespassing.

In an online post, the station noted that one of the defendants was professional photographer Sarah Jane Hardt, who admitted she made photos and videos at Circle Four last year. However, her lawyer, T. Matthew Phillips, argued that she did so from public land and said his clients were not trying to provoke an arrest to challenge the controversial law.

The activists still face misdemeanor charges of trespassing, but dropping the more serious charges may prove to be a prudent course of action. Although a spokesperson for Circle Four’s parent company Smithfield Foods said in a statement that the company would not comment on the legal proceedings, several news reported that it was company officials who requested the ag-gag charges be dropped.

If in fact the activists did capture the images from the roadside, no laws were broken. More to the point, this was not the case any prosecutor would want to use as a test of the law’s constitutionality.

The need to proceed with care

But while Utah is treading cautiously with enforcement of its law, Washington state is pressing forward with an even tougher measure.

House Bill 1104, an agriculture interference measure, was introduced in the Washington State House of Representatives Republican Rep. Joe Schmick on Monday, the first day the annual legislative session was called to order. The bill is co-sponsored by Republican Reps. J.T. Wilcox, Vincent Buys and Larry Haler and Democrat June Robinson. (Full disclosure: Robinson represents the district where I live, is a personal acquaintance and I contributed to her election campaign).

The bill has been promised a hearing by state Rep. Brian Blake, the Democratic chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, according to the Capital Press.

The Washington bill’s language mirrors the provisions in similar laws in Idaho and Utah that have prompted lawsuits in federal courts that are currently proceeding. HB 1104 states that a person commits the “crime of interference with agricultural production” if they knowingly:

  • Enter an agricultural production facility by theft, force, threat, misrepresentation or trespass
  • Obtains records of an agricultural production facility by force, threat, misrepresentation or trespass
  • Obtains employment with an agricultural production facility by force, threat, or misrepresentation with the intent to cause 16 economic or physical injury to the facility's operations, real or personal property, personnel, or goodwill, including livestock, crops, owners, employees, personnel, equipment, buildings, premises, business interests, or customers
  • Enter an agricultural production facility that is not open to the public and, without the facility owner’s express written consent, makes audio or video recordings of the assets or conduct of the facility’s operations

Doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room for activists “just making photos,” does it?

A conviction under HB 1104 would be a gross misdemeanor with penalties of up to one year in jail and a $5,000 fine.

It’s easy to cheer on these ag-gag laws, but the reality is that they need to be carefully written and even more judiciously enforced. For one thing, they represent a perceived affront to the public’s notion that if producers have nothing to hide, why would they oppose such laws?

More importantly, there are issues of freedom of speech involved, not to mention the unintended problems such laws can create.

As one commenter on a news site detailing the specifics of the new law noted, “The majority of Eastern Washington is pretty much going to be a no-photography zone, due to it being either wheat fields or orchards, if [Rep. Schmick] gets his way with this bill. Wonder what the Wenatchee Valley Chamber of Commerce is going to think if tourists can potentially get a $5,000 fine for taking a picture of an apple orchard in bloom without permission first?”

A far-fetched scenario? Probably.

A potential PR problem for producers?

Do I really need to answer that?

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.