A diverse group of organizations and citizens filed a lawsuit this week that aims to strike down Idaho’s new “ag gag” law, which makes it illegal for anyone to videotape or take photos of animal abuse at agricultural operations.
The 17 plaintiffs — which include the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho and multiple journalists, animal rights groups, and environmental organizations — allege that the law violates of the First Amendment by criminalizing certain undercover investigations. The new law, which was signed by Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter last month, makes it illegal for any videotaping or photography to go on at an agriculture operation without the owner’s consent, with penalties of up to a year in prison and a $5,000 fine.
As the plaintiffs point out in a press release, Idaho’s maximum sentence for first-offense animal cruelty is six months, meaning that the state now punishes those who document cases of animal cruelty more severely than those who commit it.
Opponents of ag gag laws, which were introduced in 11 states last year and four this year, have long held that the laws are designed to protect the agriculture industry from the bad press of animal abuse exposés. The laws do so at the expense of animal welfare and of transparency in the food system, allowing huge Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) — the operations often targeted for undercover investigations because of their records of animal abuse and public health problems — to operate out of the public eye.
“The Idaho law is deeply distressing because it is aimed entirely at protecting an industry, especially in its worst practices that endanger people, at the expense of freedom of speech. It even would criminalize a whistle-blower who took a picture or video of wrongdoing in the workplace,” Erwin Chemerinsky, constitutional law expert and dean at the University of California, Irvine School of Law, said in a statement. “I am confident that this law will be struck down under Ninth Circuit and Supreme Court precedents.”
Idaho’s law, which was introduced on February 11 and signed into law just three weeks later, is the first ag gag law passed in a state since 2012. The legislation was prompted by undercover footage of brutal abuse of cows on an Idaho farm that was shown on ABC’s “Nightline.” The video included scenes of farm workers beating and shocking the cows, and resulted in charges being brought against three of the farm’s employees after the video was turned over to law enforcement. The Idaho bill was strongly supported by the Idaho Dairymen’s Association, whose president said the group was “extremely pleased” that the bill passed.
Idaho Senator Jim Patrick, who sponsored the ag gag bill, said he did so because individuals that videotape abuse on farms “intend to destroy the business.” “We want to make sure our food security is not at risk,” he said.
But the well-being of animals that are raised for meat, and the transparency of the food system that in 2011 produced more than 92.3 billion pounds of meat and poultry, is what’s actually at risk from laws like Idaho’s. In the six other states that have ag gag laws on the books, activists and journalists have said they’ve stopped attempting to document abuse on farm operations for fear of prosecution.
This chilling effect means that the public in these states has little chance of seeing footage that can expose cruel and dangerous practices on agricultural operations and lead to major change in the agriculture industry. In 2008, for instance, an undercover video exposed “downer” cows, which can’t stand on their own and are sometimes diseased, being used for beef. The video led to the largest meat recall in U.S. history and prompted the U.S. to ban the use of downer cows for meat.