Appeals court rules against ag-gag

By Cameron Rasmusson
Reader Staff

Idaho’s beleaguered ag-gag bill suffered another legal blow last week after a U.S. court struck down key portions.

Signed into law by Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter, the so-called ag-gag law, which prohibited journalists or whistleblowers from recording animal abuse and public health violations at Idaho agricultural facilities, was deemed “staggeringly overbroad, and …  in large part, targeted at speech and investigative journalists” by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, Calif.

“Idaho is singling out for suppression one mode of speech – audio and video recordings of agricultural operations – to keep controversy and suspect practices out of the public eye,” the court ruled.

The court struck down the recording ban as a violation of First Amendment rights. However, it upheld a narrow interpretation of provisions that cut against individuals seeking employment under false pretenses. The provisions were a response to a public information campaign carried out by animal rights group Mercy For Animals members, who gained employment at a large Idaho dairy farm and documented animal abuse.

“I think that the U.S. Constitution has strong protections for free speech,” said Eric Ridgway of Sandpoint Vegetarians, one of the groups that issued a legal challenge to the ag-gag bill. “The Ninth Circuit Court made it clear that the Idaho Dairy Farmers Association was trying to limit it in a way that their abuse of animals could not be exposed.”

This is the latest instance of the ag-gag bill failing to hold up in court. In August 2015, the U.S. District Court for the District of Idaho also struck down key provisions of the law, setting the stage for a battle in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

“The Ninth Circuit’s decision sends a strong message to Idaho and other states with ag-gag laws that they cannot trample civil liberties for the benefit of an industry,” said Stephen Wells of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, another group challenging the law.

A diverse coalition of animal rights groups, public safety organizations and journalists issued a challenge to the ag-gag bill in 2014 following its passage by the Idaho Legislature and approval by Otter. Among the challengers are Animal Legal Defense Fund, the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho, the Center for Food Safety, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), Public Justice Farm Sanctuary, River’s Wish Animal Sanctuary, Western Watersheds Project, Sandpoint Vegetarians, Idaho Concerned Area Residents for the Environment, the political journal CounterPunch, Farm Forward, journalist Will Potter, Professor James McWilliams, investigator Monte Hickman, investigative journalist Blair Koch and undercover investigations consultant Daniel Hauff.

According to Ridgway, who helped mobilize Sandpoint opposition to the bill, the ag-gag is as much a threat to free speech and democratic principles as it is to animal well-being.

“If we start blocking a free press and investigative journalism, we are heading toward a totalitarian regime,” he said.

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