Federal Appeals Court Takes Down Idaho’s Ag-Gag Law

by Maggie Tauranac

Published: 1/18/18, Last updated: 9/10/19

The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit struck down Idaho’s ag-gag law early this January, paving the way for a takedown of the ag-gag structure. The court ruled the practice unconstitutional and in violation of the first amendment, to the cheers of sustainable farming advocates around the country.

Ag-gag laws refer to state laws that prohibit photographs or films being taken on farms or agricultural facilities without consent of the owner, combatting the rise of journalistic coverage of their — often inhumane — practices. The Idaho law was originally imposed in 2012 when Mercy for Animals, an animal welfare group, released a video showing rampant abuse at the Bettencourt Dairies’ Dry Creek Dairy facility. Nine states have passed ag-gag laws to prevent whistleblowing since, but this is the first federal appellate court to overturn one.

The suit was brought to court by a coalition consisting of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Food Safety and a slew of environmental, animal welfare and civil rights organizations. The coalition attracts a wide diversity of ethical issues, as ag-gag limits the work of animal welfare and environmental activists, in addition to attacking journalistic integrity and free speech.

The court ruled against two mainstays of the Idaho ag-gag law. The first makes the falsification of someone’s identity, such as a journalist trying to access a factory farm under false pretenses, criminal. The second criminalizes any possession of photographs or video that are obtained through said means. As the act of recording video is a protected civil right and the law seems intended to violate free speech and target investigative journalists, the court opposed the legislation.

Whistleblowing, reporting and gathering evidence against a corrupt system are protected rights of citizens. Should employers feel so threatened by the exposure of their practices that they feel they must threaten prison time, clearly there is something worthy of recording. This ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is an indication of this, and could potentially pave the way for a continued trend of overturning state ag-gag laws. Furthermore, the ruling could reset the bar for what is considered appropriate behavior on factory farms and keep unsustainable practices at bay.

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