Content Regulation / Censorship, Indecency / Obscenity
The Case of the Information Agency Rosbalt
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Idaho’s Bill criminalizing undercover investigations of agricultural enterprises – commonly referred to as an “ag gag” law – was held unconstitutional by the U.S. District Court for the District of Idaho. The Court found that the Bill impermissibly violated the First Amendment and Equal Protection Clause because the Bill would have the effect of suppressing the speech of undercover investigators and whistleblowers for fear of prosecution.
Following the release of a video capturing animal abuse at an Idaho dairy farm the Idaho legislature adopted Idaho Code 18-7042, which criminalized “interference with agricultural production.” This bill prohibited undercover recordings of animal enterprises without express permission, and made it a felony offense to do so.
Animal Legal Defense Fund (“ALDF”) challenged the new legislation and raised three constitutional arguments: (1) violation of the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment; (2) violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment; and (3) preemption.
The ALDF moved for summary judgment on the Free Speech and Equal Protection claims, which the District Court granted. The Court found that this Bill would have the effect of suppressing the speech of undercover investigators and whistleblowers for fear of prosecution. The Court analogized Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which under the current cill would have subjected Sinclair to prosecution. That novel, an exposé, famously led to the enactment of the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act.
The Court explained the three step analysis when looking at questions implicating the first amendment: (1) does the first amendment apply?; (2) if so, what level of scrunity applies to the speech in question?; and finally, (3) does the government meet this level of scrutiny?
First, the Court found that the First Amendment applies because the Bill applies to protected speech: information about where food comes from. Second, the Court found the Bill to be a content-based restriction on speech subjecting the Bill to strict scrunity. The Bill is content-based because it criminalizes only one type of speech: speech that implicates animal abuse at agricultural facilities. Therefore, the Court needed to determine whether the Bill was narrowly tailored to promote compelling government interests. The Court found the state could not meet this burden. This is a high burden: it requires the state to show some pressing necessity and as little restrictions on speech as necessary to achieve that necessity. The state’s interest in protecting agricultural facilities does not meet this high standard and the restriction imposed was not the least restrictive means available. Therefore, the Bill was unconstitutional under the First Amendment.
The Court next turned to whether the statute violated the Equal Protection clause. The relevant inquiry for Equal Protection is whether the classification is rationally related to a legitimate governmental interest. First, the law must create a classification either by “showing that the law discriminates on its face; by showing that the law is applied in a discriminatory fashion; or by showing that the law, although neutral on its face and applied in accordance with its terms, was enacted with a purpose of discriminating.” [Pg. 26 Para. 1] The Court found the Bill discriminated on its face by calling out whistleblowers and through its purpose due to the overwhelming evidence that the law was enacted to criminalize whistleblowers. Furthermore, the Court found that because this law was motivated by the purpose of silencing whistleblowers and does not further any other legitimate purpose, it was unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
This case expands freedom of expression by holding a Bill unconstitutional for acting as a content-based restriction on free speech and for violating the Equal Protection Clause.
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.
The Idaho District Court’s holding in this case will be binding on Idaho state courts that decide constitutional questions and on future cases deciding similar issues in the Idaho District Court. It will be a persuasive authority on other federal district courts.
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