A federal judge struck down Idaho’s ban on undercover videos at factory farms Monday, saying state legislators wrongly criminalized free speech to protect powerful agricultural groups.
Animal rights advocates called the ruling the first such defeat for a so-called ag-gag law in the U.S. The laws have gained popularity in some states as activists continue to publish undercover videos showing animal abuse at facilities around the country.
U.S. Chief Judge B. Lynn Winmill of the District of Idaho swept away the state’s ban on the grounds that the law violated the 1st Amendment and selectively targeted activists or journalists who might be critical of factory farm practices.
“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,” Winmill wrote in a summary judgment.
The judge said that “the facts show the state’s purpose in enacting the statute was to protect industrial animal agriculture by silencing its critics.”
FOR THE RECORD:
Idaho ruling: An article in the Aug. 4 Section A said Mercy for Animals was one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit that resulted in a federal judge striking down Idaho’s law criminalizing undercover videos in agricultural facilities. Mercy for Animals was not part of the lawsuit. In addition, the story omitted one of the states that have passed similar laws. They are Missouri, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, North Dakota, Utah and North Carolina. —
Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter signed the ban into law in February 2014 after a Los Angeles-based animal rights group, Mercy for Animals, released undercover video that showed dairy workers at one Idaho farm beating and abusing cows.
One clip showed workers at Bettencourt Dairies’ Dry Creek Dairy in Hansen, Idaho, dragging a cow with a tractor after attaching a chain to her neck.
Although the video resulted in criminal charges against some of the workers, many Idaho lawmakers appeared more piqued by the animal rights activists who produced the highly edited footage.
Lawmakers likened it to propaganda or worse. One lawmaker called the undercover videos "farm terrorism” intended to damage the agricultural industry. Another compared activists to ancient invaders who destroyed crops to starve enemies into submission.
Idaho’s law made it a misdemeanor -- punishable by up to a year in prison, plus potentially steep damages -- to make secret recordings or misrepresent one’s identity to gain entrance to an agricultural facility.
After the law was passed, a broad coalition of animal rights activists, journalists and civil liberties advocates sued Idaho in federal court. Plaintiffs included the Animal Legal Defense Fund, the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho and left-wing news magazine CounterPunch.
Judge Winmill noted that the law would have criminalized the undercover journalism that Upton Sinclair performed in order to write his shocking 1906 novel on the meatpacking industry, “The Jungle,” which led to industry reforms.
“As the story of Upton Sinclair illustrates, an agricultural facility’s operations that affect food and worker safety are not exclusively a private matter. Food and worker safety are matters of public concern,” Winmill wrote. “Moreover, laws against trespass, fraud, theft and defamation already exist.”
Winmill said that if farm owners were concerned about highly edited activist videos, they could mount their own public relations campaigns.
“The remedy for misleading speech, or speech we do not like, is more speech, not enforced silence,” Winmill wrote.
Mercy for Animals hailed the ruling, saying it was looking forward to producing more undercover videos in Idaho.
“Idaho’s lawmakers should be ashamed of wasting precious time and valuable resources enacting unconstitutional laws that threaten animal welfare, food safety, workers’ rights and the environment,” Nathan Runkle, president of Mercy for Animals, said in a statement.
“We hope they will now focus their efforts on improving animal welfare and rewarding the brave whistleblowers who uncover criminal activity in Idaho’s agricultural operation,” Runkle said.
A spokesman for the Idaho attorney general’s office, which defended the ban in court, said officials were still reviewing the judge’s decision and examining possible next steps.
Idaho was one of eight states that have passed ag-gag laws, according to the Animal Legal Defense Fund. The others are Missouri, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, North Dakota, Utah and North Carolina.
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