An Idaho federal court has invalidated a state law that criminalized undercover investigations at agricultural manufacturing plants, finding that the law criminalized speech in violation of the First Amendment. Animal Legal Def. Fund v. Otter, No. 14-0104 (D. Idaho, order entered August 3, 2015). The 2014 Idaho statute passed after an animalrights organization publicized a video recorded during an undercover investigation at a dairy.
The statute criminalized “interference with agricultural production,” specifically interference by non-employees who obtain access to a facility by trespass or misrepresentation—or employees who obtain employment by misrepresentation—who then create audio or video recordings without the facility owner’s consent or intentionally cause physical damage to facility operations. The Animal Legal Defense Fund challenged the law on First Amendment and Equal Protection grounds soon after it took effect.
The court first detailed the legislative history of the bill, noting the intentions of the bill’s drafters—including the “desire to shield Idaho dairymen and other farmers from undercover investigators and whistleblowers who expose the agricultural industry to ‘the court of public opinion.’” Under the statute, meat-processing muckraker and author of The Jungle, Upton Sinclair, could be subject to criminal prosecution, the court noted. The state argued that the statute “is not designed to suppress speech critical of certain agricultural operations but instead is intended to protect private property and the privacy of agricultural facility owners. But, as the story of Upton Sinclair illustrates, an agricultural facility’s operations that affect food and worker safety are not exclusively a private matter. Food and worker safety are matters of public concern,” the court found. “Moreover, laws against trespass, fraud, theft, and defamation already exist. These types of laws serve the property and privacy interests the State professes to protect through the passage of [the statute], but without infringing on free speech rights.”