BOISE – A federal judge has denied Idaho’s request to dismiss a lawsuit arguing that the recently passed law criminalizing surreptitious recording at agriculture facilities is unconstitutional.
U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill said in a ruling issued Thursday that the case raises First Amendment concerns because it restricts protected speech. Idaho had argued the law does not implicate any constitutional concerns under the First or 14th amendments.
“The ultimate question of whether (the new law) is unconstitutional remains for another day,” Winmill wrote in his 33-page ruling.
However, Winmill added that he is dismissing Gov. Butch Otter as a defendant from the case because Otter does not directly oversee enforcing the law.
A coalition of animal rights, civil liberties and environmental groups are suing the state to overturn what they call an “ag-gag” law.
The law, passed in February, was backed by Idaho’s $2.5 billion annual dairy industry after videos showing cows being abused at a Southern Idaho dairy were released in 2012. The Los Angeles-based animal rights group Mercy for Animals released the videos that showed workers at Bettencourt Dairy – one of the state’s largest dairies – beating and dragging cows.
The group contends the law curtails freedom of speech and makes gathering proof of animal abuse a crime with a harsher punishment than the penalty for animal cruelty itself.
Winmill wrote that any laws criminalizing false speech – such as lying on an employment application like the new law criminalizes – deserve extra scrutiny because most false statements are still protected.
“False statements that do not constitute defamation, fraud, or perjury are fully protected speech,” Winmill wrote. “False speech is still speech – period.”
Because only those who release undercover video or audio recordings on agriculture facilities would be punished, Winmill noted the law can be seen as a restriction of free speech. Consequently, this not only restricts video and audio recording but also restricts publishing those recordings.