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On March 17, the national nonprofit Animal Legal Defense Fund, along with a broad coalition of public interest groups, filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Idaho’s recently enacted “ag gag” law. Undercover investigations have routinely revealed sickening acts of animal cruelty on factory farms as well as shocking acts of aggravated abuse—including workers kicking pigs in the head, stomping and throwing chickens and turkeys like footballs, smashing piglets’ heads against concrete floors, and beating and sexually assaulting pigs with steel gate rods. Likewise, too-frequent revelations of food safety violations have led to the recall of millions of pounds of tainted animal products.
But Idaho’s controversial new ag gag law makes undercover investigations (including photographing or video recording animal abuse without the owner’s permission) a crime. Not surprisingly, the dairy industry had a major role in drafting this law. Dan Steenson, attorney for the Idaho Dairymen’s Association, boasted that he drafted the legislation because “extremist groups implement vigilante tactics,” referring to recordings taken inside factory farm operations.
Ag gag laws like Idaho’s aim to silence animal advocates and whistle-blowers to prevent the documentation of animal cruelty, mistreatment of workers, and food safety violations. By doing so, the ag industry is “gagging” free speech: writing its own laws to protect its interests, while violating the constitutional rights of those who would expose the industry’s cruel behavior. Idaho is the seventh state to pass such a law. Last July in Utah, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, supported by a similar public interest coalition, filed the nation’s first lawsuit against an ag gag law.
As a nation, we rely on exposés to keep the powerful agriculture industry in check. A 2012 consumer survey by Purdue University’s Department of Agricultural Economics and Department of Animal Sciences found that the public relies on the information gathered by animal protection groups and investigative journalists more than they rely on industry groups and the government combined. The importance of constitutionally protected free speech and the public’s need for this information cannot be overstated.
And that’s why our lawsuit challenges the constitutionality of Idaho’s ag gag law. As plaintiffs, we are joined by animal advocates, civil liberties groups, food safety organizations, Idaho environmentalists, farm workers, journalists, academics, and more—including PETA, Farm Sanctuary, the Idaho American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Farm Forward, the Center for Food Safety, Idaho Concerned Area Residents for the Environment (ICARE), Idaho Hispanic Caucus Institute for Research and Education (IHCIRE), River’s Wish Sanctuary, Sandpoint Vegetarians, Western Watersheds Project, journalist Will Potter, investigator Monte Hickman, undercover investigations consultant Daniel Hauff, investigative journalist Blair Koch, Professor James McWilliams, and the political journal Counter Punch—who rely on under cover investigations in their professional work to expose animal cruelty, food safety violations, and other destructive agricultural practices.
This relentless industry assault on public disclosure makes it imperative for the courts to protect our rights. We need lawmakers to focus on stopping animal cruelty and other abuses at factory farms, not criminalizing those who expose such behavior: we need lawmakers to uphold the Constitution. Until they do, the Animal Legal Defense Fund and its partners will fight these attacks on our rights in court.