Animal rights activists, food-safety advocates and whistleblowers are cheering this week thanks to a federal court’s decision that upended an Idaho law.
Idaho Code § 18-7042 creates a felony offense for activities that facilitate undercover investigations at agricultural production facilities and was passed in response to a prominent video that exposed dairy workers harming cows.
The law violates the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, U.S. District Court Chief Judge B. Lynn Winmill held. The judge rejected the state’s argument that the law is not intended to suppress speech but is designed to safeguard private property and privacy.
Anyone who violates the law faces up to one year behind bars. Journalists and whistleblowers who are convicted under the law can be ordered to pay publication-related damages, comprising double the economic loss that a business suffers due to the journalist or whistleblower exposing the animal abuse or unsafe working conditions, the judge pointed out.
“In other words, § 18-7042 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," Winmill wrote. “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 ruling is the first time a court has found an “Ag-Gag" law unconstitutional, said the Animal Legal Defense Fund, which joined other organizations in the lawsuit.
The California-based organization characterized the ruling as “just the first step in defeating similar Ag-Gag laws across the country."
“This is a huge victory for free speech, animal welfare, and food safety," said Paige Tomaselli, senior attorney for the Center for Food Safety, in a statement. “Without the ability to witness and expose the illegal and unethical behavior that goes on in one of the nation’s most powerful industries, we are all vulnerable. This latest ruling affirms our right to report abuse in order to protect animals and our health."
The Idaho law was conceived by the Idaho Dairyman’s Association, which introduced a bill to criminalize certain undercover investigations after a Los Angeles-based animal rights group released a video that depicted abuse of cows at a dairy in Hansen, Idaho.
The trade association plans to ask the state of Idaho to appeal the court’s decision, NPR reported. "The legislation was designed and crafted to try and protect First Amendment rights while also trying to provide some personal property protection," Idaho Dairymen's Association director Bob Naerebout said in the article.