Cause for Celebration: Idaho “Ag-Gag” Statute Struck Down
Image via Bluestem Farm on Flickr
First such law to be ruled unconstitutional
By Leslie Brueckner
In a landmark ruling issued today, an Idaho federal court struck down the State’s controversial “ag-gag” statute on federal constitutional grounds, holding that it violates the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause. This is the first ruling in the country on the constitutionality of such laws, which have been proposed or enacted in more than a dozen states in recent years at the behest of animal industry lobbyists—with more in the legislative pipeline.
Idaho’s ag-gag statute makes it a crime to conduct an undercover investigation at an Idaho agricultural facility. Under this law, journalists, workers, activists, and members of the public can be convicted for videotaping animal cruelty or life-threatening safety violations.
Public Justice challenged the law in Idaho federal court as part of a broad coalition including the Animal Legal Defense Fund, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho, Center for Food Safety, and Farm Sanctuary (among others). The coalition argued that the ag-gag statute violates the First Amendment by suppressing speech that criticizes factory farms, and that it violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because it was motivated by unconstitutional animus against animal advocates.
The court agreed on both counts, holding—first—that the law has the effect of suppressing speech on topics of immense public importance including the safety of the food supply, and the safety of farm workers and animals.
On the Equal Protection Clause point, the court held that “protecting the private interests of a powerful industry, which produces the public’s food supply, against public scrutiny is not a legitimate government interest.”
We applaud this ruling for a host of reasons. First, Ag-Gag laws are seriously hazardous to your health. Without the ability to investigate animal agricultural operations, there would be virtually no way to ensure that large-scale animal production facilities comply with the laws that are designed to protect the public from the adulterated food that results from unsanitary practices in the animal industry.
This is no small matter: last year alone, tens of thousands of Americans became seriously ill or died from eating meat, poultry, and dairy from factory farms, slaughterhouses, and processing plants. If existing Ag-Gag laws are allowed to remain on the books, and new Ag-Gag laws spring up in other states, the food-safety crisis would reach epidemic proportions. It’s that simple.
Ag Gag laws are also designed to stop the public from knowing about the animal abuse that runs rampant in modern-day “factory farms.” In the last decade, animal-protection advocates have conducted more than 80 undercover investigations at factory farms in the United States, virtually all of which would be criminalized under Idaho’s ag gag law. Without exception, each investigation has exposed almost unimaginable animal suffering, such as cows too sick to stand being dragged by chains and pushed by forklifts to the “kill floor.”
Today’s ruling is one step towards ensuring transparency in America’s food industry. It means that Idaho’s factory farms can no longer operate in secret.
We want this ruling to be the beginning of the end of ag-gag laws everywhere, and are fighting to make that so. Today’s ruling sends a powerful message to industry lobbyists and state lawmakers that Americans are not going to just stand by and watch their rights being sold to the highest bidder. Not this time, anyway.
Read more about Public Justice’s Food Safety & Health Program here.