Idaho’s “ag-gag” law which was signed into law in March 2014, was struck down by a district court which said it violates the first and fourteenth amendments. The decision marks the first time a court has declared this type of law unconstitutional.
Idaho’s law was designed to protect farmers from animal activists seeking to conduct video surveillance, obtain records or gain employment with intent to cause economic harm. The law was the seventh bill of its kind nationally, following up on recent bills passed in Iowa, Utah and Missouri. North Dakota, Montana and Kansas that adopted first generation bills during the 1990-91 legislative session. In 2013, 13 states saw similar introductions, but none were approved.
Animal right groups say these types of laws “gag” speech because journalists, workers, activists, and members of the public can be convicted for documenting animal cruelty or life-threatening safety violations.
In the court opinion, the judge stated, “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.”
The court also found that the statute violates the Equal Protection Clause because it was motivated in substantial part by disposition towards animal welfare groups, and because it “impinges on free speech, a fundamental right.”
The bill was advanced by the Idaho Dairymen’s Assn. and others when an undercover video on a dairy farm was released by Mercy for Animals. Specifically the Idaho bill prohibits anyone not employed by an agricultural production facility to enter or obtain records the facility by “force, threat, misrepresentation or trespass.” It also prohibits making video or audio recordings of the conduct at the facility.
It also limits anyone from obtaining employment at a facility with the intent to “cause economic or other injury to the facility’s operations, livestock, crops, owners, personnel, equipment, buildings, premises, business interests or customers.” If found guilty of the misdemeanor crime, defendants could serve as much as one year in jail and be fined as much as $5,000.
Kay Johnson Smith, president and chief executive officer of the Animal Agricultural Alliance, said animal care is the number one priority of all farm and ranch families. “No one in agriculture condones any sort of animal abuse,” she said. “The undercover videos produced by animal rights groups, however, are not really about stopping animal abuse. What they are about is the use of illicit, underhanded and manipulative tactics to produce videos to mislead the public into thinking their food is inhumanely produced.”
Johnson Smith said in the end the ultimate goal of these activists groups is ending animal agriculture by misrepresenting the industry. She said legislation, such as what Idaho had passed, was meant to protect farms and farmers and ranchers who shouldn’t have to worry about every job applicant being an undercover activist determined to bring down their family farm at all costs.
“There are a lot of differing opinions about farm protection legislation, and the decision of the federal judge regarding the Idaho law adds one more to the conversation,” Johnson Smith added. “We hope that legislators and the agricultural community will continue working to find solutions that help protect farm and ranch families from being the target of organizations focused altogether on eliminating the consumption of meat, milk and eggs.”
In a statement from plaintiffs in the suit which included the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Center for Food Safety (CFS), the groups said the Idaho decision “is just the first step in defeating similar ag-gag laws across the country.”