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Food Integrity Campaign Blog

Idaho’s Anti-Whistleblower Ag Gag Law Ruled Unconstitutional

Amanda Hitt | August 4, 2015

This piece was originally published in the Huffington Post.

An Idaho court found that agricultural whistleblowing is not a crime. Consumers who want to know the truth about the food system won a big victory this week against the culture of silence thanks to U.S. Chief Judge B. Lynn Winmill, who struck down Idaho’s anti-whistleblower Ag Gag law. He ruled the legislation unconstitutional, stating:

“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.”

The agriculture industry is not known for its transparency. But increasingly routine undercover investigations showing mistreatment of animals have inspired more public interest in how these operations run and what’s really happening behind the barn doors. Despite the public outcry, the industry hasn’t changed its behavior. Discovered and seeing a threat to their bottom lines, industry lobbyists have pushed state legislators to enact Ag Gag statutes that essentially make it a crime to report a crime.

The Idaho law didn’t just try to stop undercover investigations; it attempted to silence the truth and truth-tellers – even whistleblowing employees. The Court mentioned an example of a dutiful employee witnessing malfeasance on the job: “If a diligent and trusted longtime employee witnesses animal abuse or life-threatening safety violations and records it without authorization, the employee could face up to a year in jail and be forced to pay damages…” Such a consequence would surely chill the speech of a would-be whistleblower grappling with whether to come forward with information.

Whistleblowers have never played a more important role in society. Their unparalleled access to information makes them critical in uncovering waste, fraud, abuse of power, and threats to public health and safety. They are in the unique position, as insiders, to detect, uncover, and alert the public to looming problems. Their importance is illustrated by the fact that federal laws protecting whistleblowers have more than doubled in the past 15 years.

But it’s not the same at the state level. States have been legislating for anti-whistleblower Ag Gag bills in alarming numbers. Since 2012, 23 states have proposed such bills and five have adopted them. These Ag Gag laws reverse the federal trend toward protecting whistleblowers and vilify agriculture whistleblowers instead. Thankfully, the court in Idaho took note of this anomaly, stating that the legislation “discriminates on its face by classifying between whistleblowers in the agricultural industry and whistleblowers in other industries.”

The Court also emphasized the utility of undercover video, often relied upon by whistleblowers who justifiably fear retaliation when going through internal channels to report wrongdoing.

“Audio and visual evidence is a uniquely persuasive means of conveying a message, and it can vindicate an undercover investigator or whistleblower who is otherwise disbelieved or ignored.”

This pro-whistleblower decision is a significant win for everyone who cares about the state of the food supply, whether it’s food safety, animal welfare, worker rights, or the environment. The court in Idaho acknowledged that Ag Gag is nothing more than the industry’s attempt to stifle negative criticism, and that “food production is not a private matter.” Hopefully, courts deciding the constitutionality of Ag Gag in other states will agree.

 

Amanda Hitt is Director of the Food Integrity Campaign.

16 Comments

  1. sharon says:

    It is so shameful that we need whistleblowers to report on bad behaviour, and even worse to see what they findReport

  2. Jusef White says:

    A wonderful, common sense victory that affirms our right to know about food production and animal abuse. It’s a shame that we must fight in the SUPREME COURT to get the rights we are naturally entitled to.Report

  3. Susan Granias says:

    This is really great news. Everytime I sign a petition or write my representatives I ask them what about our rights. People have to eat and we have a right to know what we are paying our money for. I have found humanely raised eggs and beef and am working on the other things I buy.Report

  4. Murphy says:

    Finally, a score for people not business. Keep pushing.Report

  5. Larry Wineland says:

    Whistle blowers should be rewarded for coming forward. Any business that does not want people to know what is going on in their process, is more than likely to be ashamed of the way they do their business, or know that they are not being ethical in the way they manufacture their product. Most food producers know that the manure found on farms contain antibiotics and steroids which should be banned for routine use on healthy animals. By using ag-gag laws they are protecting themselves from possible litigation, just like the gas companies!Report

  6. Deborah Van Damme says:

    I have great difficulty understanding how our species in 2015, with the extensive knowledge we have concerning other animals, continue to torture, abuse and murder our other fellow creatures while justifying such heinous acts. We have created animal concentration camps and call them “food.” This is particularly evil since our species is healthier as herbivore.Report

  7. Janice Clark says:

    A few years ago I became aware of the immense suffering of animals in our food supply system. That led me to eat a whole foods vegan diet that has given me health benefits such as low cholesterol, lower blood pressure, reversing diabetes two, getting rid of arthritic pain, losing weight and maintaining the loss. What pleases me even more is knowing my vegan diet is the number one thing I can do to fight global warming and environmental devastation. I am thankful for whistle blowers who showed the reason why I should eat a plant based diet.Report

  8. cindy says:

    I wish you would work on the scumbags legislators in north Carolina that allowed a AG-GAG bill this year, despite the govenors’s veto and 75% of the people not wanting it.Report

  9. Miles Coatsee says:

    Outrageous law. The voters of Idaho must be made aware of this law and who in their legislature supported it, so they can vote them out of office at the next election. I’m glad the federal judge overturned this corrupt statute, but it shouldn’t be necessary to resort to the courts to overturn an outrageous law that should never have been passed in the first place.Report

  10. GABRIELA VARGAS MARTÍNEZ says:

    EL TRABAJO DE LOS INVESTIGADORES ENCUBIERTOS ES SUMAMENTE VALIOSO Y MUY VALIENTE. SÓLO ASÍ TODOS NOS PODEMOS DAR CUENTA DEL TERRIBLE ABUSO Y MISERIA EN LA QUE VIVEN LOS ANIMALES Y OTROS SERES HUMANOS. LOS TESTIGOS ENCUBIERTOS DEBEN SER ABSOLUTAMENTE PROTEGIDOS. ES GRACIAS A SU VALIENTE TRABAJO QUE SE PUEDEN DAR ARGUMENTOS PARA FORMAR LEYES QUE PONGAN ALTO AL HORRENDO ABUSO DE LAS GRANJAS, INDUSTRIAS Y PERSONAS QUE MALTRATAN SIN LA MÁS MÍNIMA COMPASIÓN, LO HACEN PORQUE NO PASA NADA COMO CONSECUENCIA; EL TRABAJO DE LOS INVESTIGADORES ENCUBIERTOS ES FUNDAMENTAL PARA PONER ALTO A LA CRUELDAD Y MISERIA DE LOS ANIMALES.Report

  11. Carol Ohlendorf says:

    Now we need to work on the other states that have an Ag Gag law…if there is nothing to hide than why the secrecy…Report

  12. Bren says:

    The judge was so correct and so thorough in the decision. It is a reminder of how important judges are and how important it is for good ones to be elected or appointed.Report

  13. Croneclone says:

    This is free speech!! Ag Gag laws are unconstitutional.Report

  14. Vicki says:

    Suppressing information about the food we eat should never be tolerated.Report

  15. Lois says:

    I’ve never understood why anyone would put money before having a healthy life. I saw something a couple of years ago that showed rats that had been fed nothing but GMO foods. These rats had tumors all over them. I personally couldn’t sleep at night if I knew I was responsible for making people sick. I won’t mention which entity is the #1 culprit for doing this. I watched a documentary on Netflix the other night. It was about honeybees. Everyone needs to watch this. It is an eye opener. It shows how deadly the honey supply is (if you buy from grocery stores) and the majority of the honey that is in grocery stores is not pure honey. It’s got toxic crap in it that is coming from China. I have a friend that has honeybees, He told me a few months ago that honey that’s in grocery store only has to be 10% honey to sold as “honey”. We all think we’re getting something that pure and good and it’s not. If you have time please watch that documentary it’s worth your time. It’s called “Vanishing of the honeybees”.Report

  16. Sorenson says:

    Good for you U.S. Chief Judge B. Lynn Winmill 🙂Report

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