Federal court strikes down Idaho 'ag-gag' law

by Erica Shaffer
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SEATTLE – A federal appeals court struck down most of Idaho’s “ag-gag” law that criminalized secret video recordings taken at agricultural operations.

In a 2-1 decision, the panel found that the law “…was staggeringly overbroad, and that the purpose of the statute was, in large part, targeted at speech and investigative journalists.” The panel also voided the law’s ban on audio and video recordings of a production facility’s operations because “…The Recordings Clause regulated speech protected by the First Amendment and was a classic example of a content-based restriction that could not survive strict scrutiny.”

The bill, which was promoted by the state’s dairy industry, imposed fines and jail time to those caught taking hidden-camera videos at agricultural operations. The bill came in response to an undercover video taken at Bettencourt Dairy by Mercy For Animals, a Los Angeles-based animal welfare group. The video, taken in 2013, depicted workers abusing dairy cows.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund, the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho and other groups filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the state’s ‘ag-gag’ law, which prohibited 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 facilities.

“The Ninth Circuit’s decision sends a strong message to Idaho and other states with Ag-Gag laws that they cannot trample civil liberties for the benefit of an industry,” Stephen Wells, executive director of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, said in a statement.

The panel upheld certain provisions of the law criminalizing obtaining records of an agricultural production facility by misrepresentation and obtaining employment by misrepresentation with the intent to cause economic or other injury.

“We are sensitive to journalists’ constitutional right to investigate and publish exposés on the agricultural industry,” according to Circuit Judge Margaret McKeown, writing for the majority. “Matters related to food safety and animal cruelty are of significant public importance. However, the First Amendment right to gather news within legal bounds does not exempt journalists from laws of general applicability. For this reason, we uphold the provisions that fall within constitutional parameters, but strike down those limitations that impinge on protected speech.”

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