On August 3, a federal judge struck down Idaho’s “ag-gag” law, which banned the undercover filming of animal abuse at agricultural facilities. US District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill ruled the law violates the First Amendment of the US Constitution. The statute would have criminalized undercover surveillance and investigations documenting animal welfare, worker safety and food safety violations at agricultural production facilities.
“[The law] seeks to limit and punish those who speak out on topics relating to the agricultural industry, striking at the heart of important First Amendment values. The effect of the statute will be to suppress speech by undercover investigators and whistleblowers concerning topics of great public importance: the safety of the public food supply, the safety of agricultural workers, the treatment and health of farm animals, and the impact of business activities on the environment,” Winmill wrote in his 28-page decision. “The court finds that [the law] violates the First Amendment right to free speech. In addition, the Court finds that [it] violates the Equal Protection Clause because it was motivated in substantial part by animus towards animal welfare groups, and because it impinges on free speech, a fundamental right.”
The Idaho Dairymen’s Association drafted and sponsored the law last year in response to a video shot by the Los Angeles-based animal rights group Mercy For Animals that depicted employees at an Idaho agricultural facility abusing cows. The law, which sought to criminalize this type of undercover activity, was swiftly passed through the state legislature and signed by Idaho Governor Butch Otter on February 14, 2014. According to the Associated Press, under the law, anyone caught surreptitiously filming agricultural operations faced up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine.
The Animal Legal Defense Fund—along with PETA, the ACLU and the Center for Food Safety—challenged the law as unconstitutional, alleging it stifled public debate about modern agriculture by criminalizing these types of undercover or whistleblowing investigations. “Audio and visual evidence is a uniquely persuasive means of conveying a message, and it can vindicate an undercover investigator or whistleblower who is otherwise disbelieved or ignored,” Winmill wrote.
Six other states—Utah, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, North Dakota and Montana—have drafted and passed similar ag-gag laws. North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory vetoed an ag-gag bill that landed on his desk in June; the North Carolina House and Senate overturned the veto. The law is scheduled to go into effect in January 2016.
But with the ruling in Idaho, the days for existing ag-gag laws in these other states may be numbered. While the Idaho law is the first to be struck down in federal court, similar bills drafted across the country have failed at the state level.
“When employees in the food industry reveal truths, such as animal mistreatment, safety violations and health threats, they must be protected and celebrated—not jailed and fined,” observes Stephen Kohn, nationally acclaimed whistleblowing attorney. “Whistleblowers risk their reputations and careers and, sometimes, even put their lives in jeopardy when they report wrongdoing.”
ALDF says many of the investigations the law would have stifled led to significant media coverage, food safety recalls, citations for environmental and labor violations, evidence of health code violations, plant closures, criminal convictions and civil litigation.
“The Idaho statute unconstitutionally and unwisely prohibits efforts to bring to the attention of the public and law enforcement violations of state and federal laws related to food safety, environmental protection and animal handling,” the organization concludes.