JEFFERSON CITY — The Missouri House endorsed legislation Tuesday that would make it a crime for undercover activists to produce videos portraying poor conditions at livestock farms or other agricultural facilities.
The legislation, which was given first-round approval, would create the crime of "agriculture production facility interference." It would apply to anyone who makes or distributes photos, videos or audio recordings of the activities at an agricultural facility without the consent of the owner.
The bill also would make it a crime for people to gain employment or access at agricultural facilities under false pretenses.
Supporters of the legislation pointed to Iowa, which last month became the first state to make it a crime for people to lie in order to gain access to a livestock operation to record alleged animal abuse. The Iowa law came after the Los Angeles-based group Mercy for Animals had released undercover videos depicting conditions for chickens and hogs in Iowa.
"Unfortunately, we live in a society where these activists are becoming more and more of a problem to agriculture," said state Rep. Casey Guernsey, R-Bethany, the sponsor of the Missouri legislation. "We cannot afford to allow these groups to target our industry of agriculture in Missouri like they have in Iowa."
The House endorsed the legislation by a 124-29 vote, with some Democrats joining majority party Republicans. A second House vote is needed to advance the bill to the Senate, where legislation can more easily be blocked by a few determined opponents.
In the House, some urban Democrats suggested that the Missouri legislation was an overreaction by agricultural groups. They said some undercover videos have helped put an end to deplorable conditions.
The bill appears to be an "attempt to silence advocates or others who might shine a light on unhealthy practices," said Rep. Tracy McCreery, of St. Louis County, an independent.
The Missouri legislation would apply to a wide variety of agricultural entities, including livestock and poultry farms, processing facilities, markets, exhibitions or even the vehicles used to transport the animals. It also would apply to fields of crops, orchards, greenhouses, gardens, grain elevators, barns, warehouses or any other land or buildings that are part of a commercial crop enterprise.
Under the bill, people who make recordings at agricultural facilities without the owners' permission could face misdemeanor charges punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. Repeat violators could be charged with a felony, punishable by up to four years in prison.
People who misrepresent themselves to get into agricultural property — a new crime termed "agricultural production facility fraud" — could face misdemeanor charges punishable by up to six months in jail and a $500 fine, or up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine for subsequent offenses.
The legislation also would increase Missouri's penalties for the existing crimes of first-degree trespassing and false impersonation, making them comparable with the punishments for the new crime of gaining entry to an agricultural facility under false pretenses.