Taking Ag Gag to Court

The Animal Legal Defense Fund, along with PETA, filed the nation’s first lawsuit against an ag gag law in 2013, taking Utah to court for infringing on the free speech rights of activists, investigators, and journalists by criminalizing undercover investigations at factory farms. Utah’s ag gag law prevents animal advocates and law enforcement from collecting evidence of egregious and illegal abuse of animals on factory farms. In 2014, ALDF, along with a broad-based coalition of animal protection, civil liberties, and consumer advocacy groups, filed a similar lawsuit against Idaho’s ag gag statute. Both lawsuits challenge the constitutionality of criminalizing behavior protected by the U.S. Constitution.

  • View our ag gag timeline for an overview of the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s work on this important issue.

Ag Gag & Animal Cruelty

Factory farms want to keep their cruel practices hidden from the public, but the public deserves the truth about how the billions of animals suffering on industrial farms are treated and whether or not laws are being broken that jeopardize food safety, workers’ rights, and environmental standards.

Shocking exposés from undercover investigations have revealed severe animal abuse on factory farms, like animals beaten, kicked, maimed, and thrown by workers. Industrial agriculture has also brought us the unsavory likes of ammonia and pink slime in hamburgers, antibiotic-resistant “superbugs,” chickens abandoned by the thousands to starve to death, pregnant and nursing pigs held in gestation crates that never allow them to turn around, and sick and downed cows dragged on the ground to become lunchmeat. Corporate agriculture’s massive profits and proven inclination to hide in a dark world of secrecy makes journalistic and investigative freedom imperative to the well-being of animals across the nation—and to our own health and safety.

Freedom of Speech

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Ag gag laws criminalize free speech. Utah activist Amy Meyer is a co-plaintiff in the Utah case. In February 2013, Amy videotaped the operations at Dale Smith Meatpacking Company in Draper, Utah from the roadside. Amy was charged under Utah’s ag gag law—making her the first person in the nation to be prosecuted under an ag gag law–although the charges were dropped after public outcry. In August 2014, the court allowed ALDF, PETA, undercover investigator Daniel Hauff, and Amy’s lawsuit to move forward, despite a motion from the state to dismiss the case.

Chilling Constitutionally Protected Speech

Ag gag laws aim to control our behavior by instilling fear of prosecution. This is legally known as the “chilling effect” because it intimidates people from acting and gathering information—even in legally-protected ways.Erwin Chemerinksy, a professor and dean of the law school at the University of California, Irvine, and a leading scholar of U.S. constitutional law, has weighed in in support of the lawsuit, explaining, “The Utah law is very much directed at restricting speech, and especially particular messages.  This is exactly what the First Amendment prohibits.”

This attempted blow to the U.S. Constitution and the dangerous implications of criminalizing whistle-blowing have outraged a broad spectrum of public interest organizations. In ALDF’s lawsuit against the state of Idaho, co-plaintiffs include PETA, the ACLU, 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, CounterPunch, and individual journalists, academics, and investigators.

What’s more, in that case, the AFL-CIO, the Government Accountability Project, Food and Water Watch, and a coalition of journalist organizations led by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (including National Public Radio) submitted “friend of the court” briefs in support of the coalition’s lawsuit.

Legislative Endeavors

In 2013, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam vetoed a proposed ag gag law after the Tennessee Attorney General called the bill “constitutionally suspect.”  That made Tennessee one of 13 states that failed to pass ag gag legislation that year.  So far in 2014, seven states have introduced anti-whistle-blower ag gag bills or amendments (Arizona, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, New Hampshire, North Carolina & Tennessee).  ALDF worked closely with a coalition of other advocacy organizations to successfully defeat all of these bills except for Idaho, which became the eighth state to have some form of ag gag legislation.

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