US federal judge rules Idaho ag-gag law unconstitutional

The first US District Court decision on the constitutionality of state-enacted ‘ag-gag’ laws has been handed down, and its a big victory for animal rights and animal welfare.

US District Court Judge Winmill handed down a decision on Monday ruling that Idaho’s ag-gag law (formally known as Idaho Code § 18-7042) was unconstitutional because it infringed First Amendment (free speech) rights.  The law was drafted and sponsored by the Idaho Dairymen’s Association, a trade industry organisation that represents every dairy farmer and producer in the state, in response to undercover video footage of employees of Bettencourt Dairies’ Dry Creek Dairy abusing dairy cows that was secretly obtained and published (after reporting the incident to the relevant authority) by Mercy for Animals – an animal welfare organisation.

The legal challenge against the law was prosecuted by The Animal Legal Defense Fund (“ALDF”), with the support of other animal rights agencies, who argued that the law had both the purpose and effect of stifling public debate by criminalising undercover and investigative journalism into instances of animal abuse, and whistle-blowing by employees of animal-agriculture operations.  ALDF argued that those sanctions meant the law violated the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Typical of ag-gag legislation, the law imposed disproportionate criminal sanctions on those carrying out secret investigations of commercial animal agriculture operations, which are superficially promoted by legislators as pro-animal welfare requirements or for the purpose of protecting private property.  However, Winmill J clarified that the purpose of the Idaho “ag-gag” law was to “limit and punish those who speak out on topics relating to the agricultural industry, striking at the heart of important First Amendment values”.  An equally important statement by Winmill J is that “an agricultural facility’s operations that affect food and worker safety are not exclusively a private matter.  Food and worker safety are matters of public concern.”

Winmill J stated that “[t]he effect of the statute will be to suppress speech by undercover investigators and whistleblowers concerning topics of great public importance: the safety of the public food supply, the safety of agricultural workers, the treatment and health of farm animals, and the impact of business activities on the environment”, noting that undercover journalism is a popular form of politically salient speech.  Ultimately, Winmill J found that “the facts show that the State’s purpose in enacting the statute was to protect industrial animal agriculture by silencing its critics” and the law unreasonably burdened speech critical of the animal-agriculture industry.

Although Winmill J’s decision may be appealed, it sends a strong signal about the illegitimacy of ag-gag legislation.

Idaho is one of eight US states with ag-gag laws.

See the Food Safety News site for more details and a link to Winmill J’s 28 page decision.

See this Sydney Morning Herald article for a summary.

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Animal Testing

Cruel and painful testing on animals is widespread in medicine, agriculture, pharmaceutics and education. However, the scientific merit and human benefit of many of these tests is contested by numerous scientists.

Amendments to the Code of Practice have seen ‘benchmarks’ implemented calling for the three R’s: reduction (less animals used), replacement (non-animal alternatives) and refinement (ensuring suffering is minimised).

Unfortunately, there is still a long way to go before there is an onus on people to utilise non-animal means of testing – such as the use of proteins from human cells.


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