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Federal Judge Rules Idaho ‘Ag-Gag’ Law Unconstitutional

A worker at Bettencourt Dairies in Idaho kicks a cow in this 2012 Mercy for Animals undercover video, the production of which is illegal under the state's 'ag-gag' law. (Mercy for Animals)

A worker at Bettencourt Dairies in Idaho kicks a cow in this 2012 Mercy for Animals undercover video, the production of which is illegal under the state’s ‘ag-gag’ law. (Mercy for Animals)

A federal judge ruled Monday that an Idaho law criminalizing the secret filming of animal abuse at factory farms and other agricultural facilities is an unconstitutional violation of free speech rights.

Idaho’s so-called ‘ag-gag’ bill, which sailed through the conservative state’s Republican-controlled legislature before being signed into law last year by Republican Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter, was enacted in reaction to undercover video published by Mercy for Animals showing workers at Bettencourt Dairies, a Burger King supplier, torturing and sexually assaulting cows. Idaho’s $2.5 billion dairy industry cried foul, claiming such undercover investigations unfairly harmed their business.

Under the law, SB 1337, any would-be whistleblower who records animals at an Idaho farm without the owner’s consent faces up to one year in prison and a fine of up to $5,000.

“Senate Bill 1337 is about agriculture producers being secure in their property and their livelihood,” Gov. Otter said as he signed the measure into law last February. “My signature today reflects my confidence in their desire to responsibly act in the best interest of the animals on which that livelihood depends. No animal rights organization cares more or has more at stake than Idaho farmers and ranchers do in ensuring that their animals are healthy, well treated and productive.”

But US District Judge B. Lynn Winmill sided with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Idaho, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), Animal Legal Defense Fund and other advocacy groups who argued the law was an unconstitutional violation of their First Amendment right to free speech.

“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 his 28-page ruling.

The judge further found that the law violated the constitutional guarantee of equal protection because it was largely motivated “by animus towards animal welfare groups,” noting that Republican sponsors of the measure compared animal rights activists to “terrorists.”

Winmill went even further and said that undercover journalism and activism, as well as whistleblowing in general, “are recognized and embraced as important political speech in Idaho.”

The Idaho Statesman reports state Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, whose office defended the law in court, is reviewing Winmill’s decision and has not yet decided if it will appeal.

The plaintiffs in the case, as well as animal rights activists around the nation, welcomed the judge’s ruling.

“Mercy for Animals looks forward to resuming undercover investigations in Idaho,” Nathan Runkle, the group’s president, said in a media release. “The sickening and illegal animal cruelty on factory farms that this despicable law sought to conceal will not go undetected and unpunished.”

“Everyone benefits today, not just because the court has upheld our constitutional rights, but because this decision will help protect our animals, our workers, and our food,” added ACLU of Idaho legal director Richard Eppink.

“This Idaho decision is just the first step in defeating similar ag-gag laws across the country,” Animal Legal Defense Fund said in a media release.

But ‘ag-gag’ laws remain on the books in seven states, and the federal Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA), which was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2006, makes it a federal terrorism offense to “damage or interfere with the operation of an animal enterprise.”

The AETA, which was pushed through Congress by biomedical and agribusiness lobby groups including Animal Enterprise Protection Coalition (AEPC), the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF), also covers academic and commercial enterprises that use or sell animals or animal products.

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