The Debate Over Idaho's New Ag-Gag Law Is Headed for the Courts

A coalition including PETA, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, the Center for Food Safety, and the Idaho Hispanic Caucus says the law violates the First Amendment.

(Photo: Flickr/UGA College of Ag)

Mar 17, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

Not even a month after Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter signed it, Idaho’s freshly minted ag-gag law is already facing a legal challenge. A coalition of animal rights, environmental, labor, and civil rights groups, along with journalist Will Potter, is suing the state, claiming that Senate Bill 1337 violates the First Amendment.

“These ag-gag laws are turning my sources into criminals, they are placing journalists like me in the legal crosshairs, and they are chilling a vibrant national discussion about animal protection, food safety, the environment, and workers’ rights,” Potter wrote on his website, Green Is the New Red, this morning.

His announcement of the Idaho suit echoes what he told me last summer, when he became a plaintiff in a similar lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Utah’s farm protection law.

“Ag-gag puts my sources at risk of prosecution for speaking with me or providing me their footage. No journalist should have to choose between not reporting a story that is of national concern and putting a source in jail,” he told me at the time.

Many of the same plaintiffs are involved in the Utah and Idaho cases, with the local American Civil Liberties Union being the notable addition to the new lawsuit. Leo Morales, communication director of ACLU Idaho, says that the group's involvement in the case is in the tradition of Upton Sinclair, who founded one of the group's first affiliate chapters in the country and nearly singlehandedly eliminated lard’s place in the American kitchen after revealing the horrors of Chicago’s stockyards in his novel The Jungle.

In Idaho, today's would-be Sinclairs could face fines of up to $5,000 or as much as a year in jail for making audio or video recordings at agriculture installations, obtaining a job under false pretenses, damaging facilities, and other activities that relate to whistleblowers, undercover journalists, and animal rights activists.

"When the government tells us what we can observe and documents what we can use, not only do we lose our freedom of speech—it puts into question our entire freedom of thought," Morales says, highlighting the First Amendment concerns that drew the ACLU chapter to the case.

“This law also entirely limits the production and distribution of politically salient speech regarding the agriculture industry. Also thereby, it gives preferential treatment to the industry at the expense of political speech,” he adds.

Idaho’s $2.5 billion dairy industry, the target of a number of undercover investigations in recent years, has more than its fair share of political clout and money to throw around. But even after a dairy there fired five employees who were shown abusing animals in a video released by Mercy for Animals, the group continued to target the company. The activists “unfairly tried to persuade Bettencourt Dairy's customers to stop buying its milk products,” according to Bob Naerebout of the Idaho Dairymen’s Association, who spoke to the Associated Press today.

Morales notes that laws that are already on the books could address many concerns of the industry, such as criminal trespass and defamation, without infringing on the First Amendment. “So really the problem with this law is that the way that they crafted the law is so broad that it really curtails—permanently—protected speech,” he says.

Now it will be up to the federal court of the district of Idaho to determine if that is indeed the case.