Green Light to Constitutional Challenge to Idaho Ag-Gag Law

Green Light to Constitutional Challenge to Idaho Ag-Gag Law

photo credit: Farm Sanctuary via photopin cc

Federal Court Denies Idaho’s Effort to Dismiss Challenge

By Leslie Brueckner 

Senior Attorney

Huge breaking news: We just received word that a federal district court in Idaho has denied the state’s motion to dismiss our constitutional challenge to Idaho’s Ag-Gag law.

The court’s 33-page ruling affirms that Idaho’s statute—which criminalizes whistleblowing at factory farms—may violate the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Big Ag is now officially on notice that these laws are constitutionally suspect.

Proponents of Ag-Gag laws—currently on the books in 16 states—vigorously defend them against First Amendment challenge on the ground that they are merely “content neutral” efforts to protect factory farms from trespassers. The court in our case did not mince words in dismissing this argument: “it is a fallacy to suggest, as the State does, that the misrepresentation provisions prohibit only conduct and not speech.” 

The court went on to hold that because the Idaho law “targets one type of speech—speech concerning ‘the conduct of an agricultural production facility’s operations,” the law “must survive the highest level of scrutiny to pass constitutional muster.” 

The court was just as emphatic with regard to our Equal Protection claim. Our suit argues that the law is unconstitutional because it was specifically designed to silence animal protection organizations, which have been described as “terrorists” by proponents of these laws. The court held that, if our allegations of “animus” prove true, it will “skeptically scrutinize any offered justifications for [the law]…”

To survive scrutiny under the Equal Protection Clause, the court concluded, “a law must serve a ‘legitimate’ end, and antipathy can never be a legitimate end.”

We could not have said it better ourselves.

The next step is to prove our case at trial, where we plan to demonstrate (among other things) that Idaho’s law was passed specifically to silence animal rights groups, and therefore cannot stand.

The law was enacted last year after Mercy for Animals, a Los Angeles-based animal rights group, released a video of workers abusing cows at an Idaho dairy. In response, the Idaho Dairymen’s Association wrote and sponsored Idaho’s Ag-Gag law, which criminalizes undercover investigation at animal agricultural facilities.

With today’s ruling, we are one step closer to getting these laws off the books—and exposing the truth about what goes on inside America’s animal factories.

Idaho’s Ag-Gag Law Under Scrutiny

The following post by Paige M. Tomaselli is cross-posted from the Center for Food Safety’s blog

Ag-gag laws have become a popular way for animal factories to hide unsafe, inhumane animal treatment practices.  The laws criminalize whistle-blowing activities at agricultural facilities, such as factory farms and slaughterhouses, including audio and video recordings of food safety and animal welfare violations. Anyone convicted of this conduct can face up to a year in prison or a $5,000 fine. But yesterday, a federal judge delivered a huge blow to these restrictive laws, putting Idaho and other states on notice that these laws are constitutionally infirm.

In March, Center for Food Safety, along with a coalition of animal protection, labor rights, and environmental groups, filed a federal lawsuit to overturn Idaho’s new “ag-gag” statute. In response, the state moved to dismiss the case, but the judge wasn’t having it. In his ruling yesterday, Judge B. Lynn Winmill allowed the case to move forward, agreeing with the coalition that the law may violate the First Amendment right to free speech and the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution.

Practically speaking, the decision means that the claims brought forward by CFS and our allies will undergo further judicial review. The Court will look to the facts of the case and determine whether or not Idaho’s ag-gag law is constitutional.  The Court will review whether the law, which targets only “one type of speech—speech concerning ‘the conduct of an agricultural production facility’s operations,” impinges on our First Amendment right to freedom of speech under the strictest standard of scrutiny provided under judicial review.

It will also decide whether the law—sponsored by the Idaho Dairy Association—was enacted with animus towards the animal rights community. The state must prove that despite Idaho legislators’ allegations that activists are indeed “terrorists,” “extremists,” “vigilantes,” and “marauding invaders” for investigating and exposing animal factories, the law was rational and served a legitimate end. And, as aptly noted by the Court, “antipathy can never be a legitimate end.”

If the State cannot put forward sufficient evidence to justify the law, it is unconstitutional. 

Ag-gag laws take our food system in the wrong direction. Consumers are waking up to the fact that how we raise and produce our food had serious consequences—for animals, for workers, for our environment, and for our own health.  Allowing ag-gag and other laws that reduce the accountability of food producers only further degrades our relationship with the land and what we eat. These laws work to criminalize speech intended to improve our food system and keep our food production behind closed doors.  Without the ability to witness, expose, and critique some of the nation’s most powerful industries, we are all vulnerable.

For more on why ag-gag laws are a serious food safety concern, go here.

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