Some Eastern Idaho legislators are upset by a recent federal ruling that a 2014 state law — called the “ag-gag law” by critics and the “ag security law” by supporters — violates constitutional protections for free speech and equal protection under the law.
The law, making it illegal to secretly film animal abuse at agricultural facilities, was passed after after Mercy for Animals, a Los Angeles-based animal-rights group, released a video showing workers at Bettencourt Dairies in Hansen stomping, beating, dragging and abusing the cows.
On Monday, District Judge B. Lynn Winmill ruled that the 2014 law is unconstitutional because it attempts to silence critics of agricultural industries and violates the First Amendment.
On Wednesday, Rep. Tom Loertscher, R-Bone, seemed to think that the ruling somehow leaves farmers with few protections.
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“Does this mean that agricultural operations have to let the public come in and do anything they want?” Loertscher said. “Does agriculture become responsible to let everyone come in and photograph everything they think is out of line and cause trouble for agriculture? I think it opens the door for a dangerous situation for a lot of people in the ag industry.”
All Eastern Idaho legislators voted for the bill, with the exception of Sen. Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton, who was absent. It passed the House 56-14 and the Senate 23-10.
Winmill’s ruling goes further than to merely declare that the law violates two amendments of the U.S. Constitution: It attributes bad motives to lawmakers who drafted and passed the bill.
Lawmakers targeted a group they didn’t like — animal welfare activists — and denied them equal protection under the law, Winmill ruled.
“It was motivated in substantial part by animus toward animal welfare groups,” Winmill wrote.
For proof, Winmill’s ruling pointed to several statements made by Sen. Jim Patrick, R-Twin Falls, the primary sponsor of the legislation. Citing an Associated Press story, the ruling notes that Patrick compared investigators to an invading horde destroying crops to starve enemies into submission.
Efforts Wednesday afternoon to reach Patrick for comment were unsuccessful.
Patrick compared the activists’ investigation tactic to “terrorism, (which) has been used by enemies for centuries to destroy the ability to produce food and the confidence in the food’s safety,” Winmill noted. And Patrick said of his own bill, “This is the way you combat your enemies.”
Sen. Steve Bair, R-Blackfoot, was chairman of the Senate Agricultural Affairs Committee, which conducted hearings on the bill.
Reached Wednesday, Bair, a retired farmer, refused to comment on Winmill’s ruling.
Despite Patrick’s comments, Loertscher denied that the Legislature was motivated by animus, saying it instead was focused on protecting private property rights.
“That never came up in any discussion that I’m aware of,” Loertscher said. “I would dispute that a great deal. I don’t know where he got that idea from.”
Rep. Dell Raybould, R-Rexburg, echoed Loertscher’s statement.
“I think if someone has an idea that people are harming their cattle, they should go to law enforcement,” Raybould said. “And law enforcement goes to a court and gets a warrant, and they go in and see what’s going on. That’s the proper way to do it.”
Loertscher also charged Winmill with political bias in his ruling.
“I’m struggling with the concept that this is part of the First Amendment, that people have the right to photograph an operation based on the First Amendment,” he said. “I wonder how Judge Winmill would have ruled if these videos had been taken at Planned Parenthood.”
The comparison between animal welfare activists and terrorists isn’t new. In fact, a piece of model legislation produced by the American Legislative Exchange Committee, or ALEC, which served as the progenitor of many ag-gag laws throughout the nation, comes with the suggested title, “The Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act.”
Idaho’s law does not mimic ALEC’s model legislation, but it bears several similarities to it — including making it illegal for someone to obtain employment at an agricultural operation in order to investigate the treatment of animals.
“(The law) 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,” Winmill ruled. “The effect of the statute will be to suppress speech by undercover investigators and whistleblowers concerning topics of great public importance.”
Both Loertscher and Raybould said they aren’t sure whether the Legislature will attempt to rewrite the law during the next legislative session.
Ag-gag laws exist in more than a half-dozen other states, and most of those have been challenged in court as well. Most experts expect them to be struck down on the same grounds as Idaho’s.