Media groups back suit challenging 'Ag-Gag' law

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and seven other media organizations have filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of a federal lawsuit challenging what animal-welfare groups call the "Arkansas Ag-Gag" law.

The lawsuit was filed June 25 by four legal-advocacy groups -- the Animal Legal Defense Fund, Animal Equality, Center for Biological Diversity and Food Chain Workers Alliance -- to challenge the constitutionality of Arkansas Code 16-118-113, which was enacted in 2017.

The plaintiffs say the law allows farm organizations to protect themselves from undercover investigations by animal-advocacy groups.

The defendants are state Rep. DeAnn Vaught, R-Horatio, and her husband, Jonathan Vaught, as well as Peco Foods Inc., an Alabama-based poultry farm that has facilities in Arkansas. The Vaughts own a hog farm called Prayer Creek Farm in Horatio, which the lawsuit says can house 1,200 pigs.

The organizations say they want to send undercover investigators into Prayer Creek Farms and Peco Foods but can't because of the 2017 law, which they say violates the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

DeAnn Vaught was behind the law, which creates an avenue for civil litigation against anyone who releases documents or recordings from a non-public area of commercial property with the intent of causing harm to the owner. The law was backed by the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, the Arkansas Farm Bureau, the Agricultural Council of Arkansas and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Legislators said at the time that the law would do nothing to subvert state and federal protections for people who expose illegal practices. The sponsor -- Sen. Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch -- said manufacturing plants in Arkansas have "processes" that keep them in business but are off-limits to cameras.

But the advocacy groups say the threat of penalty is an effort by the industry to hide production methods, and is part of a nationwide effort to suppress speech by penalizing investigations meant to reveal illegal and unethical conduct in the animal agriculture industry.

In a brief filed Monday, the group led by the Reporters Committee, a nonprofit association of reporters and editors with no parent corporation and no stock, urges U.S. District Judge James Moody Jr. to deny the defendants' motion to dismiss.

"As news media outlets and organizations dedicated to defending the First Amendment and the news-gathering rights of journalists, amici have a strong interest in this case," the brief states, adding that the news groups "have a powerful interest in ensuring that journalists are able to report on matters of concern to the public without facing unconstitutional impediments to their news-gathering activities."

"The ability of whistleblowers and other sources to inform journalists of dangerous, illegal, or unethical activities -- and to provide documentation and evidence of those activities -- without fear of criminal liability -- is central to journalists' ability to do their jobs effectively," says the brief filed by attorney Alec Gaines of the Williams and Anderson law firm in Little Rock.

The other news groups joining in the brief are the American Society of News Editors, the Associated Press Media Editors, the Association of Alternative Newsmedia, the International Documentary Association, The Media Institute, Radio Television Digital News Association and the Society of Professional Journalists.

In a brief filed July 19 in support of Peco Foods' motion to dismiss, attorney Michael B. Heister with the Quattlebaum, Grooms & Tull firm in Little Rock argued that the lawsuit isn't the result of an actual dispute but instead seeks an advisory opinion. He said the plaintiffs want to know that if they take certain actions and are sued, the law -- also known as the Trespass Statute -- will be deemed to have been violated. But "a bunch of 'ifs' does not create a valid case or controversy" that a federal judge is permitted to resolve, Heister added.

He called the law in question "straightforward," saying it provides a civil course of action for businesses against anyone who obtains access to the business under false pretenses; goes into a non-public, off-limits area; and "commits unauthorized acts," such as stealing documents or planting hidden cameras, that damage the operator.

The defense contends that the plaintiffs lack standing, a vested interest in the outcome, to pursue a lawsuit, "and, in any event, cannot sue a private party for these alleged constitutional violations."

The news groups' brief argues, "Members of the public cannot themselves monitor the agricultural facilities that produce their food; they depend on members of the media to do so, and to keep them informed about matters implicating health and safety. [The 2017 law] stymies the ability of news organizations to gather news and report on such matters of significant public interest."

The brief argues that state laws intended to protect the agricultural industry by concealing practices and penalizing whistleblowers have consistently been struck down as unconstitutional.

Metro on 08/14/2019

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