Ag-Gag Litigation

Ag-Gag Litigation

A just, healthy, and thriving food system requires transparency. Widely shared information about how our food is raised helps us hold corporations and government accountable. For example, investigations into animal treatment on factory farms have led to major policy reforms for animal handling. 

However, since the 1990s, Big Ag has campaigned to pass “Ag-Gag” laws in states across the country – laws that penalize whistleblowers for exposing the worker, environmental, and animal abuse that happens behind the closed doors of factory farms and slaughterhouses. There’s a reason that the agriculture industry expends immense time and resources to pass Ag-Gag laws: to escape accountability. If the public and consumers knew the truth behind meat in the grocery store aisles, they would not stand for it.

Public Justice engages in litigation to strike down these unconstitutional and pernicious Ag-Gag laws that stand in the way of a just food system.

Click on the drop-down menu below to learn the basics behind each Ag-Gag law and what we’re doing to strike it down.

Arkansas

Public Justice is lead counsel on behalf of the Animal Legal Defense FundAnimal EqualityCenter for Biological Diversity, and Food Chain Workers Alliance in this case to overturn Arkansas’ Ag-Gag statute. This statute is modeled after North Carolina’s, but with a few tweaks to try to protect it from being overturned as unconstitutional. Enacted in 2017, the law aims to silence speech by advocacy groups wishing to conduct undercover investigations of agricultural facilities and other private businesses across the state, including nursing homes and daycare centers. It allows an employer to seek damages against any person who “exceeds the[ir] authority” in a “nonpublic area” of “commercial property.” The statute exclusively provides for a civil remedy and prohibits the state from enforcing that remedy to protect any of its property – a detail that legislators insisted would protect the statute from challenge because it did not authorize state action. 

In a first-of-its-kind ruling, the Eighth Circuit held groups who wished to engage in undercover investigations could preemptively seek to stop private companies from using the law against them, concluding that the power the state granted those companies inhibits speech. The case has been remanded to the District Court for the litigation to proceed.

Resource materials

Animal Legal Defense Fund v. Vaught, 8 F.4th 714 (8th Cir. 2021)

Idaho

Working with a coalition of groups including the Animal Legal Defense FundPeople for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho, and Center for Food Safety, we helped secure the very first court decision declaring an Ag Gag law unconstitutional. Idaho’s statute made it a crime for employees to go undercover at a factory farm and report violations taking place at those facilities. The District Court agreed with our argument that the state’s law blatantly violated the First Amendment. After the State appealed our victory, we helped defend the decision before the Ninth Circuit, which held that it is unconstitutional to criminalize recording at an agricultural facility and to criminalize false speech used to gain access to such a facility to report on what is going on there. However, the Ninth Circuit upheld a provision that made it a crime to obtain employment at an agricultural facility by misrepresentation.

Resource Materials

Trial Case No. 1:14-CV-00104-BLW
Appellate Case No. 15-35960 

Animal Legal Def. Fund v. Otter, 118 F. Supp. 3d 1195 (D. Idaho 2015), aff’d in part, rev’d in part sub nom. Animal Legal Def. Fund v. Wasden, 878 F.3d 1184 (9th Cir. 2018)

Iowa

Iowa I

Public Justice serves as co-counsel in a challenge to Iowa’s first Ag-Gag law, which criminalizes undercover investigations at factory farms and slaughterhouses. This statute made it a crime to gain access to or employment at such a facility under false pretenses. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa struck down the law as violating the First Amendment. The court held that the law penalizes and thereby chills First Amendment-protected activities based on the content of speech, and because it is not tailored to serve the State’s asserted interests. The State of Iowa appealed to the Eighth Circuit, which held the law’s prohibition on making misrepresentations to obtain a job — as long as those misrepresentations don’t include one’s qualifications for the job — was unconstitutional and could not be applied. The law’s prohibition on making misrepresentations to obtain access to an agricultural facility was remanded to District Court to determine if the law is viewpoint discriminatory.

Resource materials

Trial Case No. 1:16-cv-25
Appellate Case No. 20-1776 

Animal Legal Def. Fund v. Reynolds, 353 F. Supp. 3d 812 (S.D. Iowa 2019), aff’d in part, rev’d in part and remanded, 8 F.4th 781 (8th Cir. 2021)

Iowa II

Two months after we successfully struck down Iowa’s first Ag-Gag law, Iowa’s legislature made a second attempt to prevent journalists from exposing the truth of industrial animal agriculture. As with the previous law, this version criminalizes undercover investigations at factory farms and slaughterhouses, but it targets a slightly different form of speech that is integral to those investigations. The new Ag-Gag law criminalizes using “deception” to gain access to or employment at an agricultural production facility “with the intent to cause physical or economic harm or other injury to the agricultural production facility,” such as by exposing unethical conduct that leads to boycotts.  

Serving as co-counsel in this case, we argued that this law penalizes and thereby chills First Amendment-protected activities based on the content of speech and is therefore unconstitutional. The State of Iowa quickly filed a motion to dismiss for failure to state a judiciable claim. We filed a Cross Motion for Preliminary Injunction, which the District Court granted. Proceedings have been stayed until Iowa I is resolved. 

Resource materials

Trial Case No. 4:19-cv-00124

Animal Legal Def. Fund v. Reynolds, No. 4:19-cv-00124-JEG-HCA, 2019 WL 8301668 (S.D. Iowa Dec. 2, 2019)

Iowa III

Public Justice serves as lead counsel in this case challenging another iteration of Iowa’s AgGag law, which was passed shortly after the District Court enjoined the law in Iowa II. This time the law creates a new crime if a person trespasses and makes a recording on the trespassed-upon property, thereby limiting investigators’ and activists’ ability to communicate with the public. The state has moved to dismiss.

Resource materials

Trial Case No. 4:21-cv-00231

Animal Legal Defense Fund v. Reynolds, 4:21-cv-00231 (S.D. Iowa)

Kansas

Kansas passed the first Ag-Gag law in the nation, which made it a crime to lie to an agricultural facility or make recordings of an agricultural facility if that speech resulted in boycotts or other public pressure against the facility. Serving as co-counsel to a coalition of non-profit organizations, Public Justice helped strike down the law in the District Court. We then helped defend the law on appeal. The Tenth Circuit held that the law was viewpoint discriminatory as it favored pro-business speech over anti-business speech and thus its restrictions on false speech and recording were unconstitutional.  

Resource materials

Trial Case No. 2:18-cv-02657
Appellate Case No. 20-3082 

Animal Legal Def. Fund v. Kelly, 434 F. Supp. 3d 974 (D. Kan. 2020), amended, No. CV 18-2657-KHV, 2020 WL 1659855 (D. Kan. Apr. 3, 2020), and aff’d, 9 F.4th 1219 (10th Cir. 2021), and aff’d, 9 F.4th 1219 (10th Cir. 2021)

North Carolina

Public Justice is lead counsel on behalf of a coalition of public interest groups including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Animal Legal Defense FundCenter for Food Safety, Food & Water Watch, Government Accountability Project, Farm Sanctuary, Farm Forward, and American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in a constitutional challenge to North Carolina’s “Anti-Sunshine” law  similar to Ag-Gag laws but more dangerous in scope. Under the law, organizations and journalists who conduct undercover investigations, and individuals who expose improper or criminal conduct by North Carolina employers, are susceptible to suit and substantial damages if they make such evidence available to the public or the press. The law’s text and legislative history confirm that the statute’s primary objective is to stop undercover investigations by what the legislature termed “private special interest organizations,” particularly those focused on animal agriculture and food, health, and safety. However, the statute extends beyond animal agriculture and could also penalize undercover investigations in settings like daycare centers and nursing homes.  

The U.S. District Court for the Middle District Of North Carolina struck down two of the law’s provisions — those that prevented gathering and release of recordings of illegal and unethical activities at the workplace. The court also protected undercover investigations of animal facilities and factory farms from two other provisions that would have prevented gathering information in other ways. The North Carolina Farm Bureau and Attorney General appealed. The New York Times published an editorial endorsing the challenge. 

Resource materials

Trial Case No. 1:16-cv-25
Appellate Case No. 20-1776 

PETA v. Stein, 737 F. App’x 122 (4th Cir. 2018) (determining Plaintiffs successfully alleged standing)
PETA v. Stein, 466 F. Supp. 3d 547 (M.D.N.C. 2020)

Utah

We submitted amicus briefs in a constitutional challenge to a Utah statute that criminalizes whistleblowing activity in the farmed animal agricultural industry — in particular, slaughterhouses, meat processing plants, and factory farms. The law at issue makes it a crime to “obtain access to an agricultural operation under false pretenses” or “interfere” with any agricultural operation or facility by virtue of taking photographs or recordings of the operation without the owner’s consent. The district court resolved the case in our favor, striking down the law in its entirety.

Resource Materials

Case No. 2:13-cv-00679-RJS

Animal Legal Defense Fund v. Herbert, 263 F. Supp. 3d 1193 (D. Utah 2017)

Wyoming

Leading a coalition of groups including the Western Watersheds Project, the National Press Photographers Association, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, we obtained the first appellate decision applying the First Amendment against Ag-Gag laws. Wyoming made it a crime and imposed civil penalties if a person trespassed on the way to get environmental data, such as that used to advocate for environmental regulations for agricultural pollution. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit held this restriction on gathering data was unconstitutional – it regulated speech because it prevented recording information and developing political arguments. We then litigated the case on remand to the District Court, which held the restriction failed First Amendment scrutiny, striking down the provision.  

Resource materials

Trial Case No. 15-CV-169-SWS
Appellate Case No. 16-8083 

Western Watersheds Project v. Michael, 869 F.3d 1189 (10th Cir. 2017)
Western Watersheds Project v. Michael, 353 F. Supp. 3d 1176 (D. Wyo. 2018)

Ag-Gag laws, which are pushed by lobbyists for corporate agriculture companies, are an attempt to escape scrutiny over unsafe practices, environmental pollution, and worker and animal abuses. And they keep getting more dangerous: the latest crop of Ag-Gag laws passed in Iowa, Arkansas and North Carolina penalize whistleblowers in many industries beyond agriculture.

Workers at slaughterhouses, who are predominantly people of color and often undocumented, endure unsafe working conditions that can result in amputations, musculoskeletal injuries, and even death. Rural and environmental justice communities see excess manure from factory farms polluting their air and water. Animals in factory farms live dark, short lives cooped up in cages. Whistleblowers and union organizers must be allowed to expose these human rights and animal abuses for the benefit of consumers, workers, and rural communities alike. 

But Ag-Gag laws threaten liability for those who record or publish evidence of these improper and often illegal practices, amounting to an attack on our constitutional right to free speech. Those who expose unsafe and abusive practices should not face penalties while the true culprits escape accountability. 

Ag-Gag