In a small victory for freedom of the press over corporate-ag fascism, a federal judge in Idaho has ruled that a 2014 law banning secret videotaping at agricultural facilities is unconstitutional:
“The effect of the statute will be to suppress speech by undercover investigators and whistleblowers concerning topics of great public importance: the safety of the public food supply, the safety of agricultural workers, the treatment and health of farm animals, and the impact of business activities on the environment,” U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill stated in his Aug. 3 ruling.
Lawmakers in 2014 passed the statute — dubbed the ag-gag law — after Mercy for Animals, a Los Angeles-based animal-rights group, released a video showing workers at Bettencourt Dairies in Hansen stomping, beating, dragging and abusing the cows [Zach Kyle and Cynthia Sewell, “Federal Judge Strikes Down Idaho’s ‘Ag-Gag’ Law,” Idaho Statesman, 2015.08.03].
Judge Winmill’s ruling notes that Idaho legislators likened undercover journalism to terrorism. Judge Winmill says those legislators would have called Upton Sinclair a terrorist:
The story of Upton Sinclair provides a clear illustration of how the First Amendment is implicated by the statute. Sinclair, in order to gather material for his novel, The Jungle, misrepresented his identity so he could get a job at a meat-packing plant in Chicago. William A. Bloodworth, Jr., UPTON SINCLAIR 45–48 (1977). Sinclair’s novel, a devastating exposé of the meat-packing industry that revealed the intolerable labor conditions and unsanitary working conditions in the Chicago stockyards in the early 20th century, “sparked an uproar” and led to the passage of the Federal Meat Inspection Act, as well as the Pure Food and Drug Act. National Meat Ass’n v. Harris, 132 S.Ct. 965 (2012). Today, however, Upton Sinclair’s conduct would expose him to criminal prosecution under § 18-7042 [link added; Judge B. Lynn Winmill, ruling, Animal Legal Defense Fund v Otter and Wasden, 2015.08.03].
Idaho contended that undercover journalists like those who revealed the abuses at the Bettencourt Dairies cause harm by lying to gain access to information, but Judge Winmill held that the harm comes not from the misrepresentations used to gain access to the ag facility but from publication of the factual information about the ag facility itself. Harm caused by publication of factual information does not negate the First Amendment protection of that speech. Judge Winmill says lies can serve the Constitution:
Indeed, the lies used to facilitate undercover investigations actually advance core First Amendment values by exposing misconduct to the public eye and facilitating dialogue on issues of considerable public interest. This type of politically-salient speech is precisely the type of speech the First Amendment was designed to protect [Winmill, 2015.08.03].
South Dakota has no such ag-gag law, but Iowa, North Dakota, Montana, Utah, Kansas, and Missouri do. Iowa passed the first ag-gag law in 2012, in response to Big Ag corporations crying about the exposure of their abusive practices. Judge Winmill’s ruling calls into question the constitutionality of ag-gag laws in Iowa and elsewhere and gives us legal ammo to shoot down any such proposals here in South Dakota.