Back in 2012, the animal welfare group Mercy For Animals released a video that purported to show shocking animal cruelty at a farm in Hansen, Idaho. The farm, Bettencourt Dairies' Dry Creek Dairy, was a supplier of dairy products to Burger King, and the hidden camera video showed workers kicking, punching, and jumping on top of cows. After the video made waves online, the Idaho Dairymen's Association helped to draft an "ag-gag" bill that criminalized undercover investigations of the kind conducted by Mercy For Animals, which the governor signed into law in 2014.
But the law didn't last long. Last year, it was struck down by a judge, ruling that the ag-gag law violated the First and 14th Amendments. Now, the state of Idaho has to shell out $250,000 to pay for legal fees incurred by PETA, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, and a number of nonprofits in on the case.
Ag-gag laws exist in Montana, North Dakota, Utah, Missouri, Iowa, Kansas, and, as of this year, North Carolina, and typically punish the kinds of undercover videos favored by groups like PETA that expose cruel farm practices. In Idaho, violating the ag-gag law could result in jail time. After the law was overturned, many have wondered what could happen to ag-gag laws in other states.
"The American public has a right to know when the meat industry is breaking the law, and Idaho's 'ag-gag' law was a blatant violation of free speech," a lawyer for PETA, Jeffrey Kerr, wrote in a press release. "This ruling is a warning to other states that PETA will challenge 'ag-gag' laws, we will win, and it will be costly for the state."
Shortly after North Carolina's ag-gag law came into effect at the start of the year, The New York Times editorial board wrote an op-ed about why ag-gag laws are dangerous to the First Amendment, saying the "secrecy promoted by ag-gag laws should have no place in American society." It linked the types of undercover footage at the center of the controversy to Upton Sinclair's The Jungle.
In Idaho, the state had argued that companies had the right to privacy. The Idaho Dairymen's Association director, Bob Naerebout, said that the "legislation was designed and crafted to try and protect First Amendment rights while also trying to provide some personal property protection."
Other states with ag-gag laws embrace similar stances, but they may soon find their positions under increased scrutiny. The ag-gag laws in Utah, Wyoming, and North Carolina are currently being challenged in the court system, and, with renewed momentum, more suits could be brought in other states.