Idaho's ag-gag law challenged in federal court

newsroom@idahostatesman.comMarch 17, 2014 

A coalition of organizations and journalists on Monday filed a federal lawsuit to overturn Idaho’s newly passed “ag-gag” law, which jails people who secretly film animal abuse at Idaho's agricultural facilities.

Under the new law, signed by Gov. Butch Otter on Feb. 28, anyone who films or records on an agricultural operation without permission will face up to a year in jail. That's double the maximum penalty for animal cruelty under Idaho law.

The lawsuit challenges the constitutionality of Idaho’s new law.

“The Idaho law is deeply distressing because it is aimed entirely at protecting an industry, especially in its worst practices that endanger people, at the expense of freedom of speech. It even would criminalize a whistle-blower who took a picture or video of wrongdoing in the workplace,” said Professor Erwin Chemerinsky, constitutional law expert and dean at the University of California, Irvine School of Law, in a press release. “I am confident that this law will be struck down under Ninth Circuit and Supreme Court precedents.”

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Animal Legal Defense Fund, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho, Center for Food Safety, Farm Sanctuary, Farm Forward, Idaho Concerned Area Residents for the Environment, Idaho Hispanic Caucus Institute for Research and Education, River’s Wish Sanctuary, Sandpoint Vegetarians, Western Watersheds Project, journalist Will Potter, undercover investigations consultant Daniel Hauff, investigator Monte Hickman, Professor James McWilliams, investigative journalist Blair Koch and the political journal CounterPunch.

Idaho is the seventh state to pass an ag-gag law, and the first to do so since 2012.

The legislation, promoted heavily by Idaho's dairy industry, comes after videos released by Los Angeles-based vegetarian and animal rights group Mercy for Animals showed workers at Bettencourt Dairy beating, stomping and sexually abusing cows in 2012. An activist secretly filmed the abuse after getting a job at the dairy.

"The U.S. Constitution protects free speech and freedom of the press, including journalistic exposés of industrial animal production. Like other ag gag laws, Idaho’s statute criminalizes whistle-blowing investigations at factory farms, and specifically targets animal advocates who expose illegal and cruel practices. Idaho’s ag gag law makes it illegal for anyone to take photos or videos at a factory farm or slaughterhouse without the owner’s express consent. If convicted under the ag gag law, a whistle-blower would face up to a year in prison and a $5,000 fine. By comparison, the maximum jail term for a first-offense conviction of animal cruelty in Idaho is six months. In other words, Idaho more severely punishes those who expose animal cruelty than those who commit it," according to the press release.

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