'Ag-gag' opponents win in Idaho

by Erica Shaffer
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BOISE – Recalling Upton Sinclair and his seminal novel, The Jungle, US District Court Chief Judge B. Lynn Winmill held that Idaho’s “ag-gag” law, saying the bill, § 18-7042, struck at the heart of First Amendment values and violated the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

“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 said in his opinion.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho and other groups filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the state’s ‘ag-gag’ law, which prohibits undercover filming at agricultural operations. Gov. C.L. Otter signed the bill in February 2014. Violators faced $5,000 fines and jail time for taking hidden camera video at agricultural operations.

Animal welfare groups such as Mercy For Animals applauded the ruling. In 2013, Mercy For Animals took undercover video which depicted workers abusing dairy cows at Bettencourt Dairy.

“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,” said Nathan Runkle, MFA president. “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 operations. This ruling should also be a wake-up call to the meat industry that attempts to keep consumers in the dark about where their food comes from will not be tolerated.”

Winmill said the story of Upton Sinclair “provides a clear illustration of how the First Amendment is implicated by the statute,” because Sinclair lied about his identity in order to gather material for The Jungle. The expose of the meat-packing industry led to passage of the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act.

“Today, however, Upton Sinclair’s conduct would expose him to criminal prosecution under § 18-7042,” Winmill said.

The story of Upton Sinclair also illustrates that agricultural operations that impact food and worker safety are not “exclusively a private matter.”

“Food and worker safety are matters of public concern,” Winmill said. “Moreover, laws against trespass, fraud, theft, and defamation already exist. These types of laws serve the property and privacy interests the State professes to protect through the passage of § 18-7042, but without infringing on free speech rights.”

Winmill added that the Idaho also failed to provide a legitimate reason for why agricultural production facilities warranted more protection from trespass, fraud, defamation and other crimes than other privately owned business.

“The State argues that agricultural production facilities deserve more protection because agriculture plays such a central role in Idaho’s economy and culture and because animal production facilities are more often targets of undercover investigations,” Winmill said. “The State’s logic is perverse — in essence the State says that (1) powerful industries deserve more government protection than smaller industries, and (2) the more attention and criticism an industry draws, the more the government should protect that industry from negative publicity or other harms. Protecting the private interests of a powerful industry, which produces the public’s food supply, against public scrutiny is not a legitimate government interest.”
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