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Idaho's Ag-Gag Law Under Scrutiny

September 5th, 2014
By Paige M. Tomaselli, Senior Attorney for Center for Food Safety
Center for Food Safety

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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