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"Agriculture is the state's largest industry and needs to be protected from anti-agriculture organizations and individuals," reads a summary of industry testimony given as the bill cruised through the Missouri House Committee on Agri-Business, which is chaired by seventh-generation farmer and northern Missouri Rep. Casey Guernsey, who also sponsored the bill.
Like Brown and her bill against gun-owner discrimination, Guernsey couldn't cite any instances of undercover activists filming Missouri farms. He got the idea for the bill after a local radio station ran a story on an "eager-beaver activist" who sneaked into an Iowa processing plant to take footage in order to create slanted "propaganda," he told The Pitch.
Such stunts — and their startling, brutal videos — have resulted in a lot of bad PR and lost business for animal farmers nationwide, as well as a few charges of animal abuse. Missouri's bill was just the latest version of an industry-backed clampdown that spans several states.
"Farmers and ag businesses really don't have anything to hide," Guernsey said, citing government inspectors who are on-site "all the time."
"The problem is what they [activists] capture and how they use what they capture. It's all in propaganda. You're gonna use the most sensational-appearing images when you run a campaign, which is absolutely what these folks are doing. ... The folks who try to gain access to these facilities just don't have an open mind."
Guernsey added that such footage "can get blown out of proportion pretty quickly." He explained that the bill was intended to target animal-rights groups, like the Humane Society of the United States, which he said targets farmers. (Of course, the Humane Society protested Guernsey's bill. "Lawmakers should be encouraging laws that protect animals from abuse, not protecting factory farms from scrutiny," HSUS spokesman Matthew Dominguez told The Pitch.)
But the bill's implications cut much deeper than just farmers versus activists.
The "ag gag" legislation, as activists call it, was a close copy of a bill originally proposed in Iowa. The Iowa bill, in turn, mirrored the "Animal & Ecological Terrorism Act" draft legislation proposed by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in 2003, as part of a report that compared radical animal-rights groups with al-Qaida. (ALEC, a national business-backed conservative legislative group, received heavy criticism for backing "Stand Your Ground" laws after 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman in Florida.) The ALEC ecoterrorism bill also made undercover filming illegal.
In their companion bills, Iowa and Missouri legislators went further than ALEC, criminalizing the mere possession of undercover footage. (For example, the proposed law would appear to make it a misdemeanor for a news outlet like The Pitch to "possess and distribute" undercover footage of animal abuse, even if it hadn't filmed it.)
"At the very least, I think there are serious questions about even the first part of this bill, which makes it a crime to take these videos," said Doug Bonney, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas & Western Missouri, after the bill passed the House.
Bonney called the provision criminalizing publication of such footage "clearly unconstitutional" and "pretty shocking."
The U.S. Supreme Court has long protected the right of journalists to publish newsworthy information, even if it has been illegally obtained by someone else, which is how The New York Times came to publish WikiLeaks documents without half of the newsroom going to jail.
Iowa legislators dropped the provision criminalizing publication after the state's attorney general questioned its constitutionality. Missouri House legislators did not.