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Gag Me With a Lawsuit

Animal, civil rights groups sue over 'ag-gag.'

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Correction: A previous version of this article mistakenly identified Matthew Strugar as the senior litigation counsellor for the ASPCA.

Monica Hopkins and Kathy Griesmyer, both of ACLU of Idaho, haggled over how to orient the podium they would use March 17 to announce the lawsuit they and numerous other organizations had filed, challenging the "ag-gag" law signed by Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter earlier this month. Members of the press, including an expanding ring of TV cameras, had clustered under the rotunda of Idaho's Statehouse.

With the podium aimed at the cameras, the ACLU, Animal Legal Defense Fund and 15 other litigants announced the suit against Otter and State Attorney General Lawrence Wasden over Senate Bill 1337 (now law), saying the measure "has both the purpose and effect of impairing the public debate about animal welfare, food safety, environmental and labor issues that arise on public and private land."

The litigants allege that the law has a chilling effect on free speech concerning the welfare of animals on Idaho farms, ranches and dairies, while dimming the public's view of where and how its food is produced.

"The public can't improve the situation in these [agricultural] facilities if it doesn't know what's going on," said Carter Dillard, of the Animal Legal Defense Fund.

The law penalizes the unauthorized recording of agricultural practices with up to a year in prison and as much as $5,000 in fines, as well as paying double the damages to the wronged party in restitution (BW, News, "Ag-Gagging the Truth," Feb. 19, 2014).

SB 1337 generated tremendous controversy, with proponents describing undercover videographers and whistleblowers as "terrorists," while opponents, including those who chronicled abuse at Idaho's Bettencourt Dairy in 2012, saying that videographers used legal methods to gain access to farm operations.

"Our investigators are given very specific instructions: Go to work and document the conditions," Mercy for Animals lead investigator Matt Rice told Boise Weekly in February. "Every single time our documenters get hired, they find things that shock most Americans."

Another opponent, House Rep. Ilana Rubel, described the new law as "the most extreme bill of its kind," saying that it "criminalizes true speech."

"I think there's a better case against this law than against [similar] laws in other states," said Rubel.

Currently, Idaho is one of seven states--Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, Utah and North Dakota are others--with ag-gag-type laws on the books, while similar laws have been introduced or defeated in an additional 15 state legislatures since 2010.

PETA Senior Litigation Counsellor Matthew Strugar, who oversees challenges to ag-gag bills in Idaho and Utah, described Idaho's law as unusually broad and open to a potentially successful challenge:

"They're motivated by animus against animal protection organizations. People are being punished for engaging in speech rights. The laws will be their own undoing, really."

Meanwhile, ACLU of Idaho Executive Director Hopkins said this isn't the first time her organization and the AG have butted heads--and it may not be the last.

"We have disagreed with the AG several times," she said.