Court finds law unconstitutional under First and Fourteenth Amendments
In a landmark decision issued on August 3, 2015, District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill struck down Idaho’s ag-gag law. The Idaho legislature enacted its ag-gag law in response to dairy farmers’ outcry that animal welfare groups were affecting their $2.5 billion industry. The law not only made it illegal for undercover investigators to expose animal abuse in agricultural facilities, but also criminalized journalists and longtime employees who document food and environmental safety concerns, workers’ rights violations and employee abuse without the consent of the facilities’ owners.
Judge Winmill based his decision on two constitutional claims. First, he found that the law strikes at the heart of the First Amendment because it punishes individuals who speak on topics that are of great concern to our society. The state argued that the ag-gag law was enacted to protect the privacy of agricultural facility owners rather than to suppress free speech, Judge Winmill determined, however, that agricultural operations are far from a private matter, as food quality and worker safety are of public concern.
Judge Winmill also found that the law violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which protects certain groups of citizens from being singled out under the law. He found that the legislative history of the law overwhelmingly revealed that some legislators who supported the bill compared animal rights activists to terrorists, persecutors and vigilantes, while others accused animal rights groups of fabricating issues in order to attack agricultural facilities and generate donations. Accordingly, Judge Winmill found that the ag-gag law violates the Equal Protections Clause because it was primarily passed in order to stifle animal welfare initiatives and because it intrudes on the fundamental constitutional right of free speech.
Judge Winmill also referred to Upton Sinclair, the famous author who misrepresented his identity in order to work at a meat-packing plant and subsequently published his novel, The Jungle, which revealed the intolerable working conditions at Chicago stockyards in the early 20th century. Judge Winmill explained that under a law such as this, Sinclair, whose novel led to a revolution in food safety laws, would have been criminally prosecuted for his work.
A similar lawsuit has been filed by the Animal Legal Defense Fund challenging an ag-gag law in Utah. There are currently six states besides Idaho that have Ag-gag laws.
For more information on ag-gag laws and to take action against pending ag-gag bills in other states, please click here.