It’s unlikely that the constitutionality of the new “ag-gag” laws of Idaho and Utah will be known until after those states hold legislative sessions in 2015, and maybe even until after another round of lawmaking in 2016.
The controversial “ag-gag” statutes, which prevent undercover investigations at animal agriculture facilities, were adopted in Utah in 2013 and in Idaho this year. San Francisco-based Animal Legal Defense Fund along with other activist groups and some individuals challenged both in federal courts this year.
In each case, federal judges have dismissed some plaintiffs and defendants from the litigation, and in one the judge dismissed one of the claims against the state. B. Lynn Winmill, chief judge for the U.S. District Court for Idaho, tossed a challenge to a section of Idaho law that makes causing the intentional damage or injury to livestock or property a crime.
Winmill also released Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter from the Animal Legal Fund’s lawsuit, leaving Attorney General Lawrence Wasden to defend the law. In Utah, U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby dropped several plaintiffs from further involvement.
Shelby sent web/print publication Counterpunch, journalists Will Potter and Jesse Fruhwith and history professor James McWilliams all packing. The only individual plaintiffs remaining are Amy Meyer, who was originally arrested under the law, and Daniel Hauff, an experienced undercover animal abuse investigator.
The judge also dismissed federal preemption as a potential cause of action in the Utah lawsuit. This means the animal defense attorneys cannot argue that the Utah “ag-gag” is unconstitutional on grounds it might interfere with something like a whistleblower’s investigation into a federally regulated establishment.
Still, foundations for both lawsuits remain largely intact, and likely to go to federal jury trials. Both lawsuits advance claims based on basic rights under the 1st and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
“In short, the Utah law infringes the rights of Plaintiffs and give the animal agriculture industry a virtual monopoly on the most relevant and probative speech on a top that is of vital important to the public,” the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s original complaint filed in Salt Lake City says, “thereby allowing the industry to provide a misleading account of activities in animal operations and hide violations of animal cruelty, labor, environment, and food safety laws.”
Court documents indicate that lawyers for both sides do not see much chance they will reach a settlement. Trial dates have not been set, but neither is likely to find their way on to a court calendar very soon.
In Idaho, which was filed about four months ahead of the Utah case, the deadline for dispositive motions is March 9, 2015. Such motions are those seeking a trial court order to settle all claims in favor of the moving party without the need for any further court proceedings. A motion for a summary judgment is one such dispositive motion.
All the plaintiffs in the Idaho case, including the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho (ACLU) and Center for Food Safety (CFS) recently filed a motion for summary judgment.
In the motion they argue that they are entitled to judgment in their favor because the statute—Idaho Code sec. 18-7042—violates their right to free speech and other rights protected by the U.S. Constitution. They say as a matter of law, this statute cannot withstand legal scrutiny.
The Idaho “ag gag” statute makes it a crime to conduct an undercover investigation at an Idaho agricultural facility, making it possible for anyone convicted of videotaping animal cruelty or other violations to go to face prosecution.
In his 31-page decision, Judge Winmill said the issues he was allowing to go to trial were “ripe for review.”
In Utah, the deadline for dispositive motions is Nov. 16, 2015. If the dispute continues, court documents indicate a trial date will likely be set for the third quarter of 2016.
Agriculture protection has been a hot legislative topic since 2010, with four states: Iowa, Missouri, Utah and Idaho adopting statutes that critics have labeled “ag-gag” laws. The current court schedules mean there will be at least one and maybe two more rounds of legislative sessions in most states before any federal court decision on the practice becomes available.© Food Safety News