Downward trend for ag-gag laws continues

By:Ellen Essman, , Senior Research Associate , Senior Research Associate Wednesday, February 05th, 2020

Last year, we wrote a post on recent developments in ag-gag litigation.  In that post, we discussed a few ag-gag laws that had been struck down on First Amendment grounds.  Court actions and decisions in recent months show that this trend is continuing.  Namely, decisions in Iowa and Kansas have not been favorable to ag-gag laws. 

What is an ag-gag law?

“Ag-gag” is the term for state laws that prevent undercover journalists, investigators, animal rights advocates, and other whistleblowers from secretly filming or recording at livestock facilities.  “Ag-gag” also describes laws which make it illegal for undercover persons to use deception to obtain employment at livestock facilities.  Many times, the laws were actually passed in response to undercover investigations which illuminated conditions for animals raised at large industrial farms. Some of the videos and reports produced were questionable in nature—they either set-up the employees and the farms, or they were released without a broader context of farm operations. The laws were meant to protect the livestock industry from reporting that might be critical of their operations—obtained through deception and without context, or otherwise. The state of Ohio does not have an ag-gag law, but a number of other states have passed such legislation. 

Injunction in Iowa lawsuit

You may recall that Iowa’s ag-gag law was overturned in January of last year.  The judge found that the speech being implicated by the law, “false statements and misrepresentations,” was protected speech under the First Amendment.  The state wasted little time in passing a new ag-gag law that contained slightly different language. (We wrote about the differences between Iowa’s old and new versions of the law here.) After passage of the new law, animal rights and food safety groups quickly filed a new lawsuit against the state, claiming that like the previous law, the new law prohibited their speech based on content and viewpoint.  In other words, they argued that the new Iowa law was still discriminatory towards their negative speech about the agricultural industry, while favoring speech depicting the industry in a positive light. 

While the new challenge of Iowa’s law has not yet been decided by U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa, the court did grant a preliminary injunction against the law late last year.  This means the law cannot be enforced while the case is ongoing, which is certainly a strike against the state.  We’ll have to wait and see if the court is persuaded that the new language of the law violates the plaintiff’s First Amendment rights, but for the time being, there is no enforceable ag-gag law in the state of Iowa. 

Kansas law overturned

Kansas passed its ag-gag law in 1990, and has the distinction of having the oldest such law in the country.  Although the law was long-standing, the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas still determined that it was unconstitutional. 

What exactly did the law say? The Kansas law, among other things, made it illegal, “without the effective consent of the owner,” to “enter an animal facility to take pictures by photograph, video camera or by any other means” with the “intent to damage the animal facility.”  The law also made it illegal for someone to conceal themselves in order to record conditions or to damage the facility.  “Effective consent” could be obtained by “force, fraud, deception, duress, or threat,” meaning under the law, it was not permissible for an undercover whistleblower to apply for a job at an animal facility and work at the facility if they really intended to record and disseminate the conditions. 

In a 39-page opinion, the court explained its reasoning for striking down the law.  Following a familiar formula for First Amendment cases, the court found that the law did in fact regulate speech, not just conduct. The court stated that the “prohibition on deception” in the law prohibited what an animal rights investigator could say to an animal facility owner, and that the outlawing of picture taking at animal facilities affected the investigator’s creation and dissemination of information, which the Supreme Court has found to be speech.  Next, the court found that the law prohibited speech on the basis of its content; to determine whether someone had violated the law, they would have to look at the content of the investigator’s statement to the animal facility owner.  Furthermore, the court pointed out that the law did not prohibit deceiving the facility owner if the investigator intended to disseminate favorable information about the facility.  Moving on, the court cited Supreme Court decisions to show that false speech is indeed protected under the First Amendment.  Since the court found that the law prohibited speech, on the basis of its content, and that false speech is protected, it had to apply strict scrutiny when considering the constitutionality of the law.  Applying this test, the court explained that the law did “not prevent everyone from violating the property and privacy rights of animal facility owners,” instead, it prevented “only those who violate said rights with intent to damage the enterprise conducted at animal facilities.”  As such, the law did not stand up to strict scrutiny because it was “underinclusive”—it applied to a small group of people with a certain viewpoint, but nobody else. 

Based upon its reasoning above, the court did overturn most of the Kansas ag-gag law. However, it is worth noting that it upheld the part of the law that prohibits physically damaging or destroying property or animals at an animal facility without effective consent from the owner. 

What’s on the horizon?

The next two ag-gag decisions will likely be made by courts in Iowa and North Carolina.  We discussed the Iowa case above—the court will have to determine whether the slightly different language in the new law passes constitutional muster.  We’re also continuing to watch the lawsuit in North Carolina, which has been working its way through the courts for several years now.  North Carolina’s “ag-gag” law is interesting in that it doesn’t just prevent secret recording and related actions at livestock facilities, but also prohibits such actions in “nonpublic areas” of a person or company’s premises.

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