Idaho ban on spying at farms unconstitutional; similar Utah law being challenged

Composite stock image, St. George News

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho’s ban on spying at farms, dairies and slaughterhouses violated free speech rights, a federal appeals court ruled Thursday, addressing a law similar to one in Utah that is also facing legal challenge.

“The panel held that the subsection criminalized innocent behavior, was staggeringly overbroad, and that the purpose of the statute was, in large part, targeted at speech and investigative journalists,” wrote U.S. Circuit Judge M. Margaret McKeown in a 56-page ruling.

Idaho lawmakers in 2014 passed the law making it a crime to surreptitiously videotape agriculture operations after the state’s $2.5 billion dairy industry complained that videos of cows being abused at a dairy two years earlier unfairly hurt their businesses.

The measure passed easily in Idaho, where agriculture is not only one of the leading businesses but also the occupation of many state lawmakers.

In addition to Utah, Kansas, North Dakota, Montana, Iowa, Missouri and North Carolina have similar laws. Legal challenges are pending in Utah and North Carolina.

Animal rights activists, civil rights groups and media organizations quickly sued once the Idaho bill received the governor’s signature, arguing the law criminalized a long tradition of undercover journalism and would require people who expose wrongdoing to pay restitution to the businesses they target.

In Thursday’s decision, the appeals panel upheld a prior federal judge’s ruling that the ban was an unconstitutional infringement of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution safeguarding free speech.

The panel also ruled the law correctly criminalized those who made false statements to either obtain records at an agricultural facility or to obtain employment with the intent to inflict harm.

“We are sensitive to journalists’ constitutional right to investigate and publish exposes on the agricultural industry. Matters related to food safety and animal cruelty are of significant public importance,” McKeown wrote. “However, the First Amendment right to gather news within legal bounds does not exempt journalists from laws of general applicability.”

The panel then reiterated a federal judge’s point that there are already state and federal laws on the books that protect private property.

The Idaho attorney general’s office was reviewing the decision and planned on discussing it with state officials, spokesman Scott Graff said.

According to the opinion, the panel particularly took exception to the law’s ban on audiovisual recordings but not photography, rejecting the state’s argument that the act of making a video or audio recording is not protected by the First Amendment.

“Without some legitimate explanation, we are left to conclude that Idaho is singling out for suppression one mode of speech — audio and video recordings of agricultural operations — to keep controversy and suspect practices out of the public eye,” the opinion stated.

The Idaho Dairymen’s Association — a trade organization that represents Idaho’s dairy industry — wrote the measure after the Los Angeles-based animal rights group Mercy For Animals released videos that showed workers at Bettencourt Dairy beating and stomping cows in 2012.

At the time, one legislator supportive of the bill dubbed animal rights groups as terrorists while another described videos depicting animal abuse were used to publicly crucify a company and as a blackmail tool.

A separate lawmaker noted that if the Mercy For Animals video had never been published, the bill wouldn’t have surfaced.

Written by KIMBERLEE KRUESI,  Associated Press.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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  • Sapphire January 6, 2018 at 1:03 pm

    There are so many documented reports of animal cruelty in the food industry, that these groups should be allowed to photograph and alert us, and if the companies lose business, so what? They should. That is called consequences of their actions. If the government would do its job and monitor industries for abuse, water and air pollution, etc., outsiders wouldn’t have to. Somehow those who record and report are perpetrators instead of those who cause the problem.

  • .... January 6, 2018 at 2:34 pm

    Yeah so let’s have the government fly drones around your house 24/7 and watch everything you do in your back yard

    • Sapphire January 7, 2018 at 8:03 am

      Try to stay on task here… this is about the food industry, not your back yard.

      • Real Life January 7, 2018 at 10:10 am

        He’s probably talking to his cat. He will come back around after he takes his meds.

  • comments January 6, 2018 at 4:27 pm

    “We own these here animals. God gave us the right to torture and mistreat them as we please”

  • Kyle L. January 6, 2018 at 7:43 pm

    They should just have their employees sign a non-disclosure agreement. If they violate it and the company can show loses the former employee would have to pay the company for said loses.

  • Common Sense January 6, 2018 at 7:52 pm

    While I do not believe anyone should be able to fly drones over and spy I do feel like the consumer has the RIGHT to know how these animals are being treated. I feel like these companies have removed the consumer so far from the product that the consumer does not even realize or want to know how the food got on their plate. It may not concern most but it does me. The process is quite grueling and it is sad these animals are being treated like products and not living breathing creatures. No living creature deserves to be treated in inhumane ways.

  • PlanetU January 6, 2018 at 9:07 pm

    Thankfully we have animal rights activists. Without them we would never know about the abuse. Imagine the fear that the animals feel from the torture/mistreatment. It’s just a way of life for some ranchers/farmers, heartless.

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