04 August 2015

Judge to Idaho "Ag Gag" Law: Drop Dead

The law, which criminalizes whistleblowing on farm and the agriculture industry has been overturned on free speech grounds:
A federal judge has lifted a controversial ban on undercover surveillance inside Idaho’s factory farms, delivering a significant victory to animal rights’ activists.

Judge B Lynn Winmill ruled on Monday that the state’s so-called “ag gag” law violated the constitutional right to free speech.

“An agricultural facility’s operations that affect food and worker safety are not exclusively a private matter,” said the judge. “Food and worker safety are matters of public concern.”

The agriculture industry’s political allies passed the law last year after an undercover investigator with the advocacy group Mercy for Animals used a hidden camera to expose cruelty and neglect at Bettencourt Dairies, Idaho’s largest dairy factory farm.

The 2012 exposé documented workers beating, kicking and shocking cows, twisting their tails and dragging them with chains attached to their necks.

………

The state’s $2.5bn dairy industry said the sting was an attempt to hurt businesses and rallied legislators in the state capitol to pass a law making it a crime to film inside agricultural facilities. Governor CL “Butch” Otter signed it.

………

Judge Winmill agreed. He said the law violated the first amendment and the equal protection clause because it was motivated in substantial part by animus towards animal welfare groups.

“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.”

Existing laws against trespass, fraud, theft and defamation sufficed to protect the dairy industry from wrongful intrusion, he said. “These types of laws serve the property and privacy interests … but without infringing on free speech rights.”
A well deserved smack-down, but I would also argue that the law violated the constitutional injunction against bills of attainder, as well as the 14ᵗʰ amendment's injunction against unequal treatment under the law, and this law is specifically formulated to favor just one business activity.

Of course, judges, real ones, not folks like Scalia, Alito and Thomas, try to keep their rulings as narrow as possible, so I understand why the opinion was written that way.

Of course, my opinion is offered with the caveat that I am an engineer, not a lawyer, dammit!*

*I love it when I get to go all Dr. McCoy!

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