By Cameron Rasmusson
The Idaho state government suffered a major legal defeat today with a federal court striking down its controversial “ag-gag” law.
The U.S. District Court for the District of Idaho ruled against the controversial 2014 law Monday, saying it “violates the Equal Protection Clause because it was motivated in substantial part by animus towards animal welfare groups, and because it impinges on free speech, a fundamental right.”
“The remedy for misleading speech, or speech we do not like, is more speech, not enforced silence,” wrote Judge B. Lynn Winmill in the ruling.”The Court finds that [the Ag-Gag law] violates the First Amendment.”
A broad coalition of animal rights and civil liberty organizations, including local group Sandpoint Vegetarians, was instrumental in fueling the effort to overturn the law.
“Sandpoint Vegetarians is proud to have been part of the coalition led by the Animal Legal Defense Fund to repeal Idaho’s notorious ag-gag law,” said organization co-founder Stephen Augustine. “With the ruling by federal judge Winmill, the governor and legislature of Idaho have been found guilty of trampling on the constitutional rights of the citizens of Idaho.”
The ag-gag bill effectively criminalized any documentation of Idaho factory farm operations, a law particularly targeting journalists and animal rights advocates seeking to expose instances of cruelty or unhealthy practices. Those prosecuted for recording audio or video with “the intent to cause economic injury” at any agricultural facility could be punished with an up-to-$5,000 fine and a year of imprisonment. Compare that to Idaho’s animal cruelty law, which carries a maximum penalty of six months in jail for first-time offenders.
“[This] was their attempt to criminalize citizen action geared towards humane treatment of animals and concern for our collective well-being,” Augustine said.
The court ruling is a big victory for animal rights groups like Mercy For Animals, whose activities prompted the law in the first place. In 2012, group members secured employment at one of Idaho’s largest dairy farms, Dry Creek Dairy. Over the course of a few weeks, they recorded video of cows being beaten, whipped, kicked and even sexually molested.
From the beginning, the ag-gag law was controversial. Sandpoint Vegetarians co-founder Eric Ridgway saw it as an example of government favoring moneyed interests over citizen well-being, and he bristles over the public cost of enacting and defending the legislation.
“The citizens of Idaho deserve better management of their tax dollars than for the creation of laws that were bound to be overturned, and that were enacted strictly to benefit the profits of corporations over the health of citizens,” he said.
One of the key points in Winmill’s ruling against the law centered on the fact that while agricultural recordings may take place on private property, food production is far from a strictly private issue. It’s a point that recalls those made by Augustine and Ridgway, who say the public has a right to know how their food is made as much for public health reasons as ethical reasons.
“What a huge victory for justice this is,” Ridgway said. “The good people of Idaho do not support cruelty towards animals, nor the covering up of agricultural practices that try to keep secret how our food is processed.”
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