Idaho ‘Ag Gag’ Law Under Fire

Recently passed law protecting animal producers from unwarranted surveillance challenged by activist groups and journalists.

Idaho successfully signed into law the first bill in the country this year that protects farmers from animal activists seeking to conduct video surveillance, obtain records or gain employment with intent to cause economic harm. But animal activists are already crying foul in an attempt to unravel one of the tightest written packages protecting animal facilities with a lawsuit filed this week.  

The law represents the seventh bill of its kind nationally, following up on recent bills passed in Iowa, Utah and Missouri. North Dakota, Montana and Kansas adopted first generation bills during the 1990-91 legislative session. Last year, 13 states saw similar introductions, but none were approved.

Specifically the Idaho bill prohibits anyone not employed by an agricultural production facility to enter or obtain records the facility by “force, threat, misrepresentation or trespass.” It also prohibits making video or audio recordings of the conduct at the facility.

It also limits anyone from obtaining employment at a facility with the intent to “cause economic or other injury to the facility’s operations, livestock, crops, owners, personnel, equipment, buildings, premises, business interests or customers.”

If found guilty of the misdemeanor crime, defendants could serve as much as one year in jail and be fined as much as $5,000.

Called an “ag gag” law by activists, the bill comes on the heels of a 2012 video released in the state by Mercy for Animals which later led to the firing of five workers and criminal charges brought against three of them. The farm later installed its own surveillance cameras to keep its 500 workers in check.

Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter signed the bill into law Feb. 28, saying Senate Bill 1337 is about agriculture producers being secure in their property and their livelihood. He said his signature reflects his confidence for the agricultural industry to “responsibly act in the best interest of the animals on which that livelihood depends.”

Activist groups such as The Humane Society of the United States were opposed to the measure supported and backed by the Idaho agricultural industry saying it “covers up animal abuse, unsafe working conditions, and environmental violations,” the HSUS said in a statement against ag-gag laws.

Otter in his written statement said, “No animal rights organization cares more or has more at stake than Idaho farmers and ranchers do in ensuring that their animals are healthy, well-treated and productive.”

The bill quickly made its way to the governor’s desk, first introduced on Feb. 11, and was signed into law Feb. 28. It passed the state House by a vote of 56-14 and in the state Senate by a vote of 25-10.

The Idaho Dairymen’s Assn. pressed for the bill. Dairymen testifying for the bill explained that animal right activists are focused more on hurting the dairy industry and its brands, rather than truly protect animals.

Ahead of the governor’s signature, Hamdi Ulukaya, founder and chief executive officer of leading Greek Yogurt maker Chobani, urged the governor to reconsider signing the bill. Chobani recently decided to build a plant in the state because of its “deep farming culture, sense of community and shared values,” he said.

Ulukaya noted if the bill was passed it would “limit transparency and make some instances of exposing the mistreatment of animals in the state punishable by imprisonment. This could cause the general public concern and conflicts with our views and values.”

Bill challenged

The 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) filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Idaho.

Idaho is the seventh state to pass an “ag gag” law, and the first to do so since 2012. If found guilty of the misdemeanor crime, defendants could serve as much as one year in jail and be fined as much as $5,000.
The plaintiffs claim the law “silences would-be-whistleblowers by intimidating journalists and activists from exercising their First Amendment rights.”

In the last decade, animal protection advocates have conducted more than eighty undercover investigations at farms in the United States, virtually all of which would be criminalized by the Idaho statute.

In a release from plaintiff CFS, Erwin Chemerinky, constitutional law expert and dean at the University of California, Irvine School of Law, said he was “confident that this law will be struck down under Ninth Circuit and Supreme Court precedents.” He added the law endangers people at the expensive of freedom of speech. “It even would criminalize a whistle-blower who took a picture of video of wrongdoing in the workplace.”

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