Judge: 'Ag-Gag' Law Unconstitutional

Federal Judge Rules Idaho Law Against Secret Recording Violates First Amendment

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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An Idaho law made "interference with agricultural production" a crime. Anyone convicted of videotaping animal abuse or safety violations without getting the owner's permission first could face a year in jail. (DTN/The Progressive Farmer file photo)

OMAHA (DTN) -- A federal judge granted a summary judgment last week to an animal-rights group, ruling that an Idaho law against videotaping farm operations is unconstitutional.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund had filed a lawsuit last year against Idaho's governor and attorney general. Idaho is one of seven states with a specific law seeking to prevent whistleblowers from secretly recording on farms. Most of the laws involve fines for providing false information on job applications as a way to get into farms.

The group Mercy for Animals released a video last year showing cattle being abused at an Idaho dairy. The video sparked the Idaho Dairymen's Association to champion a bill criminalizing undercover videos that exposed potentially abusive scenes at livestock facilities. The law made "interference with agricultural production" a crime. Anyone convicted of videotaping animal abuse or safety violations without getting the owner's permission first could face a year in jail. Moreover, a journalist or whistleblower could be forced to pay restitution for economic losses due to the result of a story revealing animal abuse or unsafe working conditions.

U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill stated in his ruling that the law sought to limit and punish people who spoke out against topics related to agriculture, which Winmill stated was effectively "striking at the heart of important First Amendment values."

Winmill cited the story of Upton Sinclair and his book, "The Jungle," which exposed Chicago's meat-packing industry early in the 20th century and led to federal laws regarding meat inspection. Winmill noted Idaho's law would have essentially made Sinclair's conduct criminal. Winmill stated the public has a strong interest in how food is produced and how livestock that produce food are treated.

Winmill cited statements from Idaho legislators made during debate over the bill as lawmakers criticized animal-rights groups and their motives. Lawmakers claimed the bill was needed to protect the dairy industry from other undercover operations.

The judge noted that the Idaho law represents "a particularly serious threat to whistleblowers' free speech rights." Moreover, criminal and civil laws already exist to protect people from false statements.

"The State's logic is perverse -- in essence the State says that (1) powerful industries deserve more government protection than smaller industries, and (2) the more attention and criticism an industry draws, the more the government should protect that industry from negative publicity or other harms."

Neither Idaho state officials nor representatives from ALDF responded to the judge's decision.

Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com

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Chris Clayton