A collation of journalists and campaign groups took the argument on so-called ag-gag laws to the Court of Appeal on 20 June, which will consider the legality of whistleblower censorship.
The Animal Legal Defense Fund, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho (ACLU), the Centre for Food Safety, and Public Justice filed a brief defending a 2015 court decision.
In August 2015, a judge at the United States District Court of Idaho ruled that the state’s so-called ag-gag laws were unconstitutional. The judge claimed they violated the first and the 14th Amendments of the US Constitution, which protect freedom of speech and the right to equal legal protection respectively.
Free speech infringement
Ag-gag is a term widely used in the US referring to state laws that forbid the act of undercover filming of farm activity, especially footage that depicts malpractice.
A statement from the Animal Legal Defense Fund called Idaho’s ag-gag laws one of the most sweeping statutes of its kind, and one that criminalises filming and circulation of images in factory farms and abattoirs. For example, an undercover investigator could go to jail for exposing conditions inside a slaughterhouse if the person failed to disclose affiliations to the media. So too could an employee who took a picture without permission from management of animal cruelty, food safety violations or even a blocked fire escape at the farm.
Journalists and animal rights’ groups claim ag-gag laws shield businesses from public accountability and censor free speech. The Court of Appeals Ninth Circuit will be the first court in the country to rule on whether ag-gag laws are unconstitutional.
Hopeful of right outcome
“The agricultural lobby convinced state legislatures to enact these laws to stifle whistleblowing and keep the public in the dark about factory farming,” said Animal Legal Defense Fund executive director Stephen Wells. “We are optimistic that the court will send a strong message to Idaho and other ag-gag states that they cannot trample civil liberties for the benefit of an industry.”
“Unsanitary and unethical conditions in factory farms promote the spread of disease in both people and animals, and play a major role in increased antibiotic use and resistance,” said Paige Tomaselli, attorney at Center for Food Safety in a press statement. “Idaho cannot shield this industry and deny consumers’ right to know how their food is produced at the expense of public health.”
After the briefing is complete, a date for an oral argument will be set and the Ninth Circuit’s verdict could be decided as early as next year.