Federal judges did not much like the newer laws to protect animal agriculture from prying eyes. So-called “ag-gag” laws adopted during the last decade in Utah, Idaho, and Iowa were struck mainly down as unconstitutional when challenged by animal rights activists.

Kansas, North Dakota, and Montana, however, adopted ag-gag laws 30 years ago. Those statutes survived without much controversy or notice. But now a federal judge has ruled that Kansas cannot bar the public from taking pictures or recording videos of animal agriculture even if the intent is to “damage an enterprise.”

To do so, according to U.S. District Judge Kathryn Vratil, unconstitutionally criminalizes free speech. She said the Kansas ag-gag law only limits those with negative views of animal agriculture.

The Kansas ag-gag law makes it a crime to enter facilities under pretenses or take pictures or record videos of animal agriculture without the owner’s permission.

Animal activists are challenging state laws because they inhibit their undercover investigations from identifying and documenting animal abuse. With evidence, they do “damage an enterprise,” mostly by associating farms with consumer brands. Brands often drop farms involved in animal abuse controversies.

Farm states, however, are usually open to measures to protect agriculture because their economies depend on the sector. Iowa had one ag-gag law struck down by a federal district court, and the Legislature passed another.

Utah saw its 2012 ag-gag law struck down by a federal district court in 2017.  It was the only one of the more recent ag-gag laws that resulted in someone’s arrest and brief jailing.  Those charges were dropped after the prosecutor acknowledged the defendant, Amy Meyer,  was standing on public land during the entire incident, which involved animals being delivered for slaughter at Draper, UT.

The Utah Attorney General did not appeal the District Court decision to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.

Idaho also saw its statute struck down by a federal district court and Gem State did appeal to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. It lost there, too, in a landmark decision that for the first time saw appellate judges in a 2-1 ruling say there is a constitutional right to take pictures or make audio-visual recordings on private property.

The 3-judge panel summarized there ruling this way:  “The interference with Agricultural Production was enacted after disturbing secretly-filmed expose of operations at an Idaho dairy farm went live on the internet.   The statute — targeted at undercover investigation of agriculture operations — broadly criminalizes making misrepresentations to access  an agricultural production facility as well as making audio and video recordings of the facility without the owner’s consent.”

The appellate court said the criminalization of innocent behavior “was staggeringly overboard. The 9th Circuit said the law was “targeted at speech and investigative journalists.”   The ruling did uphold the Idaho ag-gag provision that criminalizes obtaining employment by misrepresentation with the intent to cause economic or other injuries.

Iowa’s 2012 ag-gag law, also intended to shield animal agriculture from undercover investigations, was also found unconstitutional by the U.S. District Court for Southern Iowa.    The state both appealed to the 8th Circuit and the Legislature adopted a new ag-gag law about three weeks after losing the first one.

Officially,  Iowa’s new statute is the Agriculture Production Facility Trespass Law.  It makes it illegal for someone to gain access to private facilities with the intent to cause physical-economic hard to the operations, property or persons. Misdemeanor and aggravated misdemeanor charges may be brought with fines and prison time as punishments.

Different activist groups have been plaintiffs in the litigation, but the staple litigator is the Animal Legal Defense Fund.

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)