The U.S. District Court for the District of Idaho struck down Idaho’s “ag-gag” law, which criminalized undercover investigations in which animal cruelty was filmed and publicized.
A coalition of animal right groups and activists challenged the law, and the Reporters Committee led a coalition of sixteen news organizations in filing an amicus brief in December, arguing that the law infringed on constitutionally protected newsgathering rights.
The law, Idaho Code § 18-7042, created the new criminal felony offense of “interference with agricultural production,” which occurs when a person, among other things, entered an agricultural production facility by misrepresentation and made audio or video recordings of the facility’s operations. It was enacted in early 2014 after animal rights activists aired videos of workers using a tractor to drag cows with chains around their necks, while also beating and kicking them.
Chief Judge B. Lynn Winmill condemned the law as an unconstitutional ban on valuable political speech on food and worker safety, which are matters of public concern.
“§18-7042 seeks to limit and punish those who speak out on topics relating to the agricultural industry, striking at the heart of important First Amendment values,” the opinion states. “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.”
Current laws addressing trespass, fraud, theft, and defamation already adequately protect the interests of the agricultural production facilities, Judge Winmill wrote.
The Reporters Committee argued that the law was a content-based, viewpoint-discriminatory regulation that could not survive evaluation under the strict scrutiny standard. It criminalized lawful, constitutionally protected newsgathering activity, and threatened to discourage both whistleblowers from coming forward with information that would serve the public and journalists from reporting on those issues of public concern.