The so-called ag-gag law, which passed in Idaho in 2014, is a sorry example of a special interest overreach that embraced the cries of lobbyists over First Amendment concerns and the state’s reputation as a transparent food producer.
That U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill would rule it unconstitutional this week should come as no surprise to anyone outside of the Idaho Legislature and the governor’s office. There is a long list of lawmakers who thought it a grand idea to protect agricultural producers at the expense of those who have a legitimate role in scrutinizing their practices. Not only did these lawmakers want to discourage any and all attempts at whistleblowing, they also wanted such “terrorists” to be threatened with punishment.
We hope the Legislature and Gov. Butch Otter will take Winmill’s ruling to heart and resist any urge or expense to appeal it, and also hope they will learn from it — though we have doubts.
What is especially troubling is the tone-deafness of the 20-some senators and 50-some representatives who voted to pass the law and saw only one side of the issue: the dairy lobby view that, by golly, barns should be like Vegas — what happens there, stays there.
The highly regulated agriculture industry is not a private matter, as Winmill pointed out in a ruling that references Upton Sinclair’s novel “The Jungle,” for which the author misrepresented himself to Chicago slaughterhouses in order to research his exposé on the meatpacking industry. Winmill counters a perception that Idaho agricultural machinations deserve some special level of privacy when “food production and safety are matters of the utmost public concern.”
What the Legislature, in its zeal, conveniently overlooked in this case is that the people of Idaho and nationwide consumers of our agricultural products have a stake in what is produced for consumption, and that potential whistleblowers on animal mistreatment — whether private groups or members of the media — have a protected path to investigate.
We support an agricultural producer’s right to deny access to their property, and there are criminal trespassing laws that speak to that. But the extremes of the ag-gag law were oblivious to the lines where the industry’s rights and First Amendment rights overlap and conflict. We have always wondered, as the public must, “What do lawful and legitimate practitioners of animal husbandry have to hide?”
There were warnings issued against this bill on its way to becoming law. Chobani CEO Hamdi Ulukaya, whom Otter negotiated with to lure the company to Idaho, urged the governor to veto the bill. Stalwart Republicans such as former Sen. Russ Fulcher, who knows his way around a dairy farm, and Rep. Lynn Luker had the sense to vote against it.
It’s time that some members of our Legislature put as much effort into all of our laws as they do focusing on a few favorites. They might wake up on the right side of a lawsuit someday.
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