Constitutional Challenge Made to State’s Attempt to Silence Factory Farm Whistle-Blowers
Today, a coalition of organizations dedicated to civil liberties, animal protection, food safety, labor rights, and the environment, along with journalists, filed a federal lawsuit to overturn Idaho’s newly passed “ag gag” statute, signed into law by Idaho governor C.L. “Butch” Otter on February 28. The lawsuit challenges the constitutionality of Idaho’s ag gag law (Idaho Code sec. 18-7042), and was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Idaho by national nonprofits Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho (ACLU), and the Center for Food Safety (CFS). Idaho is the seventh state to pass an ag gag law, and the first to do so since 2012.
The U.S. Constitution protects free speech and freedom of the press, including journalistic exposés of industrial animal production. Like other ag gag laws, Idaho’s statute criminalizes whistle-blowing investigations at factory farms, and specifically targets animal advocates who expose illegal and cruel practices. Idaho’s ag gag law makes it illegal for anyone to take photos or videos at a factory farm or slaughterhouse without the owner’s express consent. If convicted under the ag gag law, a whistle-blower would face up to a year in prison and a $5,000 fine. By comparison, the maximum jail term for a first-offense conviction of animal cruelty in Idaho is six months. In other words, Idaho more severely punishes those who expose animal cruelty than those who commit it.
In the last decade, animal protection advocates have conducted more than eighty undercover investigations at factory farms in the United States, virtually all of which would be criminalized by the Idaho statute. One recent PETA investigation revealed multiple beatings of pigs with metal rods and workers sticking clothespins into pigs’ eyes and faces. A supervisor was filmed kicking a young pig in the face, abdomen, and genitals to make her move and told the investigator, “Make her cry.” The lawsuit argues that Idaho’s law silences would-be whistle-blowers by intimidating journalists and activists from exercising their First Amendment rights.
“The Idaho law is deeply distressing because it is aimed entirely at protecting an industry, especially in its worst practices that endanger people, at the expense of freedom of speech. It even would criminalize a whistle-blower who took a picture or video of wrongdoing in the workplace,” said Professor Erwin Chemerinsky, constitutional law expert and dean at the University of California, Irvine School of Law. “I am confident that this law will be struck down under Ninth Circuit and Supreme Court precedents.”
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are ALDF, PETA, ACLU, CFS, Farm Sanctuary, Farm Forward, Idaho Concerned Area Residents for the Environment (ICARE), Idaho Hispanic Caucus Institute for Research and Education (IHCIRE), River’s Wish Sanctuary, Sandpoint Vegetarians, Western Watersheds Project, journalist Will Potter, undercover investigations consultant Daniel Hauff, investigator Monte Hickman, Professor James McWilliams, investigative journalist Blair Koch, and the political journal CounterPunch.