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Animal Legal Defense Fund v. Otter

ELR Citation: 45 ELR 20146
Nos. 1:14-cv-00104, (D. Idaho, 08/03/2015) (Winmill, J.)

A district court held that an Idaho "ag-gag" law that criminalizes undercover investigations of agricultural production operations violates the U.S. Constitution. Under the law, a journalist or animal rights investigator can be convicted for not disclosing his media or political affiliations when requesting a tour of an industrial feedlot, or when applying for employment at a dairy farm. An employee can be convicted for videotaping animal abuse or life-threatening safety violations at an agricultural facility without first obtaining the owner's permission. And any person who violates the law "whether an animal rights' investigator, a journalist, or an employee" faces up to a year in jail. An animal rights group challenged the law, claiming that the law violates the First Amendment right to free speech as well as the Equal Protection Clause, and the court agreed. The law seeks to limit and punish those who speak out on topics relating to the agricultural industry, striking at the heart of important First Amendment values. The 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. The state countered that the law is not designed to suppress speech critical of certain agricultural operations but instead is intended to protect private property and the privacy of agricultural facility owners. But food and worker safety are matters of public concern, and laws against trespass, fraud, theft, and defamation already exist. Here, the law not only restricts more speech than necessary, it poses a particularly serious threat to whistleblowers' free speech rights. The law, therefore, fails to pass strict scrutiny. The court also held that the law 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.