Court: Kansas “Ag-Gag” unconstitutionally bans free speech

January 23, 2020 GMT

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — Provisions in a Kansas law that ban the secret filming at slaughterhouses and other livestock facilities unconstitutionally criminalize free speech, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.

U.S. District Judge Kathryn Vratil mostly sided with a coalition of animal rights and consumer protection groups which had challenged the state’s “Ag-Gag” law, which was enacted in 1990. The law makes it a crime for anyone to take a picture or video at animal facilities without the owner’s consent or to enter them under false pretenses.

The regulation of speech is not viewpoint-neutral because it only applies to speech that is made with intent to damage the enterprise conducted at an animal facility, Vratil wrote.

The litigation, filed in December 2018 i n U.S. District Court in Kansas, was brought by the Animal Legal Defense Fund, the Center for Food Safety, Shy 38 Inc., and Hope Sanctuary. It names Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly and Attorney General Derek Schmidt as defendants.

“We are carefully reviewing the court’s decision and will work to determine the appropriate next steps,” said Clint Blaes, spokesman for the attorney general’s office.

In a 39-page split decision the judge summarily ruled that a key section of the Kansas Farm Animal and Field Crop and Research Facilities Protect Act “plainly targets negative views about animal facilities and therefore discriminates based on viewpoint.”

The judge based her ruling on a “strict scrutiny” reading of the law, which allows a content-based speech restriction only if it is necessary to serve a compelling interest and are narrowly tailored to achieve that end.

In declaring those portions of the law unconstitutional, Vratil said the state did not attempt to justify those provisions. The state only argued that they are a reasonable way to protect animal facility owners’ privacy and property rights and did not assert a compelling interest in protecting those rights.

But even if they had, the state still did not meet its burden because the law did not prevent everyone from violating the property and privacy rights of animal facilities owners — only those who violate those rights with intent to damage the enterprise at the animal facility, she said.

Undercover operations, which expose unsafe and inhumane conditions, are a crucial form of free speech, the lawsuit argues. It contends such investigations have revealed information about animal cruelty, unsafe food handling practices, environmental hazards and inhumane working conditions.

Similar laws in Utah and Idaho have been struck down as unconstitutional violations of the First Amendment, and litigation is pending in several other states.

Vratil found the groups had no legal standing to sue over some of the other provisions of the same law that prohibit physically damaging or destroying an animal facility because the groups’ investigators had not alleged they intended to engage in that conduct.