Climate

Federal Judge Rules Idaho Ag-Gag Law Unconstitutional

CREDIT: AP Photo/Charlie Litchfield, FILE

A line of Holstein dairy cows feed through a fence at a farm outside Jerome, Idaho.

On Monday, a federal judge ruled that an Idaho law that prohibits the secret filming of animal abuse at agricultural facilities is unconstitutional, potentially calling into question the validity of such laws across the country.

U.S. District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill found that the law violates the First Amendment, writing in his 29-page ruling that “prohibiting undercover investigators or whistleblowers from recording an agricultural facility’s operations inevitably suppresses a key type of speech because it limits the information that might later be published or broadcast.”

The Idaho law is the first “ag-gag” law to be struck down in court — and since the law was struck down on federal constitutional grounds, Leslie Brueckner, senior attorney for Public Justice, which served as co-counsel for the plaintiffs in the case, is hopeful that the ruling will set strong precedent for other challenges to ag-gag laws across the country.

“This ruling is so clear, so definitive, so sweeping,” Brueckner told ThinkProgress. “We couldn’t ask for a better building block in terms of striking these laws down in other states.”

Seven other states have enacted similar laws, including North Carolina, whose state legislature recently overrode Gov. Pat McCroy’s veto to pass a law that makes it easier for businesses to sue someone that enters a nonpublic area in order to obtain workplace secrets or document workplace violations. Of the remaining states with similar laws, only Utah’s has so far been challenged in court.

Idaho enacted the law in 2014 after animal rights groups released undercover videos showing dairy workers at an Idaho farm abusing and beating cows. Idaho is the third-largest producer of milk in the United States, with the state’s dairy industry generating over $2.5 billion in 2012. The bill that Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter signed into law was heavily influenced by the dairy industry, with Idaho Dairymen’s Association lobbyists helping to draft the bill and testifying in support of it before the state legislature.

The undercover video — taken at Bettencourt Dairies’ Dry Creek Dairy, which counts among its customers Kraft Foods, Wendy’s, and Burger King — resulted in criminal charges for the workers shown abusing animals, but the tactic also raised ire among Idaho legislators, who likened the video to propaganda and the medieval tactic of burning enemy crops. The ensuing law made secretly filming agricultural operations a misdemeanor offense, punishable by up to a year in prison and a $5,000 fine. For contrast, the Idaho Statesman points out that a person found guilty of animal cruelty in Idaho, on first offense, could face up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $5,000.

In March of 2014, a broad coalition of animal right’s groups, environmental organizations, and journalists, filed a lawsuit against the state, claiming that the law was a violation of freedom of speech. The plaintiffs also claimed the law violated the Fourteenth Amendments’ Equal Protection Clause, as it unfairly singles out animal rights activists.

The law’s supporters — including the dairy industry — argued that the secret videos, which were highly edited, unfairly hurt their reputation. Judge Winmill seemed unconvinced by that argument.

“The remedy for misleading speech, or speech we do not like, is more speech, not enforced silence,” he wrote in his decision.

Winmill also cited Upton Sinclair, the American author whose work of undercover journalism “The Jungle” exposed health and safety violations within the early-20th century meatpacking industry, leading to widespread reform.

“As the story of Upton Sinclair illustrates, an agricultural facility’s operations that affect food and worker safety are not exclusively a private matter. Food and worker safety are matters of public concern,” Winmill wrote.

Brueckner applauded the court’s decision, arguing that undercover investigations are necessary to reveal public health and environmental violations by food and agriculture companies that largely operate out of the public eye.

“America’s food comes out of factory farms, and the conditions inside these farms are directly relevant to the safety of our food supply. When factory farms are allowed to operate in secret, bad things happen,” Brueckner said. “Right now, whistleblowers are the only way that anyone ever gets to see the truth about how america’s food system works.”

In a press statement, the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) — a co-plaintiff in the case — called the ruling a “landmark victory,” and called for other states with similar laws to fight them in court.

“With Idaho’s statue ruled unconstitutional, there are seven states remaining with Ag-Gag laws on the books,” the ALDF said in an emailed statement. “This landmark Idaho decision is the first step in defeating similar Ag-Gag laws across the country including North Carolina’s.”

Todd Dvorak, spokesman for Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, told Food Safety News that the state had not yet decided whether it would appeal the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco.