Lawmakers in Idaho may know what side their bread is buttered on, but a recent win for Big Dairy won’t be the last word on a contentious battle over free speech and the public’s right to know what happens behind the scenes on America’s farms.
A coalition of journalists, free-speech advocates and animal-rights groups is challenging a controversial new Idaho law that criminalizes undercover investigations at agricultural production facilities. With support from the state’s $2.5 billion dairy industry, the law was proposed after a 2012 video investigation by the group Mercy for Animals purported to show workers at a local dairy farm beating, shocking and deliberately inflicting pain on cows.
The dairy employees exposed in the investigation were reportedly fired, but the incident set the stage for Idaho’s hugely influential agricultural industry to spearhead a proposal to ban such investigations on the grounds that they are conducted and presented with extreme bias, and therefore unfairly damage dairy farmers’ businesses. A bill was introduced earlier this year and signed by Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter on Feb. 28, making Idaho the latest of at least seven states to enact so-called ag-gag laws.
On Monday, a legal challenge to Idaho’s law was filed by a group of plaintiffs that includes the ACLU of Idaho, the Center for Food Safety and PETA. Leo Morales, communications and advocacy director for the ACLU of Idaho, called the legislation “dangerous,” accusing the state government of blatantly safeguarding agricultural interests at the expense of basic constitutional rights. “The state is choosing to protect the speech of the ag industry over that of its critics,” Morales told International Business Times in a phone interview. “Whenever the government chooses to protect one group over another, that’s not allowed by the Constitution.”
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Filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Idaho, the lawsuit names as defendants Gov. Otter and Lawrence Wasden, the state’s attorney general. A spokesman for Wasden’s office said the office doesn’t comment on pending litigation.
Last year, Utah passed a similar law, and like in Idaho’s case, critics responded with a lawsuit. (The legal challenge was filed in December 2013, and the case is still pending.) But Morales said the Idaho law is particularly broad, encompassing a range of agricultural settings that goes far beyond industry-related interests. “For example, if I were to take a picture of my neighbor who owns some chickens, and my finger just happens to cross into their property, that’s not allowed under this law,” he said.
Even worse, Morales said, ag-gag laws set a troubling precedent that may spill into any number of industries wishing to shield themselves from public criticism. That slippery-slope concern was echoed by Will Potter, a Washington-based journalist and author of “Green Is the New Red: An Insider's Account of a Social Movement Under Siege,” who is among the plaintiffs named in the lawsuit. “If these laws go unchallenged, it’s not just investigators and activists at risk,” Potter said in an email. “It’s farm workers, journalists like me, and perhaps most importantly, consumers. These laws are meant to keep the public from knowing what they’re buying. I’m already seeing these ag-gag laws pop up in other countries around the world, and some proposals have also included other industries. If we don’t stop these laws now, they will become the new model for how corporations keep the public in the dark about practices that are dangerous for the environment, workers and public safety.”
Ag-gag law proposals have surfaced in about 22 states, and Morales said most have failed to pass. But both he and Potter expressed deep concern that the laws are not gaining wider attention as being a threat to the First Amendment and press freedom. In many media reports, the issue has been conflated with animal-rights extremism and the oft-criticized tactics of groups like PETA, whose outspoken campaigns and use of graphic imagery can turn off even potential allies. Morales said agricultural interests in Idaho have capitalized on the dubious reputation of some animal-rights groups as a means of categorizing all ag-gag critics as a fringe element, thereby deflecting attention from the law’s potential to undermine free speech. “It’s strategy of the other side,” he said. “Groups that opposed this law were called ‘radicals’ and ‘terrorists.’ These are the terms that the other side has used to really break the credibility of any group that opposes these pieces of legislation.”
A representative for the United Dairymen of Idaho said the group is unable to weigh in on legislative or policy issues. According to the group’s website, milk produced from Idaho farms generated $2.5 billion in 2012, ranking it as the “largest single sector in the state’s agriculture industry.”
With revenue that high, even a small dent in production would be spilled milk worth crying over, but Morales said essential liberties shouldn’t have to be sacrificed to protect commercial interests, no matter how powerful -- or tasty. “For them, perhaps it may be a matter of bottom line and profits, but the Constitution doesn’t discriminate with regards to the First Amendment,” Morales said. “Just because they may not like the speech that’s coming out about them, doesn’t mean they have the right to ban it.”