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Animal Legal Defense Fund v. Vaught

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  1. Newsgathering

Amicus brief filed by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 23 media organizations

Court: U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit

Date Filed: June 3, 2020

Update: In August 2021, the Eighth Circuit reversed the district court and remanded the case for further proceedings, finding that the plaintiffs’ complaint had alleged facts adequate to establish standing.

Background: In 2017, the Arkansas General Assembly passed a law making it possible for an employer to file a civil lawsuit against someone who enters a nonpublic area of a commercial property and then captures data, records images, or installs surveillance devices, among other acts, that cause harm to the employer. The law mirrors similar “ag-gag” statutes passed in state legislatures across the country that seek to thwart efforts by employees, activists, and journalists to conduct undercover investigations at agricultural sites.

In 2019, four animal and human rights organizations challenged the constitutionality of the Arkansas ag-gag law, filing a federal lawsuit against Peco Foods and the operators of Prayer Creek Farms.

The defendants moved to dismiss the complaint, and in early 2020, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas granted their motion, ruling that the plaintiffs lack standing to sue. The plaintiffs then appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.

Our Position: The Eighth Circuit should hold that the plaintiffs have standing to challenge Arkansas’ unconstitutional ag-gag law.

  • Journalists depend on sources inside agricultural facilities to report on matters of public concern.
  • The Arkansas ag-gag statute applies broadly and imposes severe civil penalties, chilling the flow of information between journalists and potential informants.
  • Contrary to the district court’s decision, courts have consistently found standing to challenge ag-gag laws even when the plaintiffs do not have precise plans for how they intend to violate the law at a specific time in the future.

Quote: “The Act prevents Plaintiffs from conducting undercover investigations of agricultural facilities, chilling the exercise of their First Amendment rights. The stifling of those investigations in turn chills and deters journalists from engaging in newsgathering activity and reporting about conditions in the agriculture industry — issues of paramount public interest and concern.”

Related: In August 2019, the Reporters Committee filed an amicus brief before the district court in this case. As discussed in a March 2020 blog post, the Reporters Committee has supported multiple challenges to ag-gag laws in states across the country, including recently in Iowa and North Carolina.

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