For First Time, Court Rules Ban on Secretly Filming Animal Abuse Unconstitutional

by | August 4, 2015 AT 10:50 AM

By Zach Kyle And Cynthia Sewell

A federal judge ruled Monday that an Idaho law making it illegal to secretly film animal abuse at agricultural facilities violates the right to free speech.

"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," U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill stated in his Aug. 3 ruling.

Lawmakers in 2014 passed the statute -- dubbed the ag-gag law -- after Mercy for Animals, a Los Angeles-based animal-rights group, released a video showing workers at Bettencourt Dairies in Hansen stomping, beating, dragging and abusing the cows.

A coalition of nonprofit groups sued, including the Animal Legal Defense Fund, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho and Center for Food Safety, claiming the law criminalizes whistleblowing and violates freedom of speech.

The Idaho Attorney General's Office, which defended the law in court, is reviewing Winmill's decision and has not yet determined how it will proceed, spokesman Todd Dvorak said.

Currently, seven states have ag gag laws. Winmill's decision marks the first time a court has declared an ag gag statute unconstitutional.

"This Idaho decision is just the first step in defeating similar ag gag laws across the country," stated the Animal Legal Defense Fund in a statement.

Nathan Runkle, Mercy for Animals president, vowed the group would continue to work undercover to uncover animal abuse.

"Mercy for Animals looks forward to resuming undercover investigations in Idaho," Runkle said in a release. "The sickening and illegal animal cruelty on factory farms that this despicable law sought to conceal will not go undetected and unpunished."

Winmill noted in his ruling that undercover journalism and whistleblowing in Idaho contributed to public discourse in matters involving wolf hunting, family planning services and public school safety.

"Such investigations into private matters, both by government and private actors, are recognized and embraced as important political speech in Idaho," he wrote.

(c)2015 The Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho)