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Animal-Cruelty Whistleblowers Are Fighting Legal Gag Orders

Idaho’s new law criminalizes activists who secretly record animal abuse in “agricultural production facilities.”

by Ben Richmond
Mar 24 2014, 7:50pm

Photo by Jeff Vanuga/USDA

This article originally appeared on Motherboard.

Just as the laws spread from Utah, Iowa, Missouri to Idaho, the legal backlash to “ag-gag” bills follows. In Idaho a coalition of animal- and workers-rights groups, and journalists are challenging the constitutionality of the new law that criminalizes would-be whistleblowers who secretly record animal abuse in “agricultural production facilities.”

Idaho became the seventh state to pass an ag-gag bill in February. The legislation was backed heavily by the state’s $2.5 billion dairy industry, to fight actions like those of the animal rights group Mercy For Animals, which released a video of abusing cows in Idaho’s Bettencourt Dairies. The bill’s sponsor, Idaho State Sen. Jim Patrick, compared animal rights activists who filmed abuses to “marauding invaders centuries ago who swarmed into foreign territory and destroyed crops to starve foes into submission.”

Under the new law, anyone who films or records on an agricultural operation without permission could face up to a year in jail, which is double the maximum penalty for animal cruelty under Idaho law, the Idaho Statesman reports.

In the complaint filed last week, the coalition argues that the bill is overreaching and is a threat to the great American tradition of muckraking journalism that protects both consumers and employees of the agriculture industry. “The law almost entirely limits the production and distribution of politically salient speech regarding industrial agriculture,” the complaint states. The law makes reporting criminal behavior in the workplace a criminal behavior of its own. “The practical effect of the law is to provide preferential treatment to industries at the expense of political speech.”

Part of the overreach is how broadly “agricultural production facilities” is defined. The term applies “not only to factory farms and slaughterhouses, but also to public parks, restaurants, nursing homes, grocery stores, pet stores, and virtually every public accommodation and private residence in the state,” the complaint states.

“These ag-gag laws are turning my sources into into criminals," said William Potter, one of the plaintiffs on the lawsuit and a journalist who runs the blog Green is the New Red. “They are placing journalists like me in the legal crosshairs, and they are chilling a vibrant national discussion about animal protection, food safety, the environment, and workers’ rights.”

Other members of the coalition include the Animal Legal Defense Fund, PETA, the ACLU of Idaho, the Center for Food Safety, Farm Sanctuary, Farm Forward, Idaho Concerned Area Residents for the Environment, Idaho Hispanic Caucus Institute for Research and Education, River’s Wish Sanctuary, Sandpoint Vegetarians, Western Watersheds Project, William Potter, undercover investigations consultant Daniel Hauff, investigator Monte Hickman, Professor James McWilliams, investigative journalist Blair Koch and the political journal CounterPunch, as reported by the ACLU.

Even before Idaho’s governor, Butch Otter, signed the ag-gag bill into law, it faced opposition from journalists, watchdog organizations, and even the dairy industry itself. Hamdi Ulukaya, the founder and CEO of the yogurt company Chobani, said that the if the bill 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 [Chobani’s] views and values.”

The backlash to ag-gag laws is getting faster and more organized. It took a year and charges filed (and dropped) against Amy Meyer, who filmed a sick cow being abused from a public street, for neighboring Utah’s ag-gag bill to be challenged. In Idaho, it took less than a month. The hearing on Utah’s law will take place on May 15, in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, while Idaho’s law is being challenged in the Ninth Circuit Court in San Francisco.

Follow Ben Richmond on Twitter: @a_ben_richmond