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Cows

Cows at a Magic Valley dairy.

Times-News file photo

BOISE (AP) | Animal rights lawyers are asking a federal judge to strike down an Idaho law aiming to stop people from secretly filming animal abuse in the state's agricultural facilities.

The law's opponents asked U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill on Tuesday for a summary judgment — a fast-tracked way for a judge to rule on a lopsided case without having a full trial.

Justin Marceau from the Animal Legal Defense Fund said the statute — dubbed the "ag gag" law — stifles free speech.

But Carl Withroe from the Idaho Attorney General's office said that the law doesn't hinder whistleblowers. "The statute was designed to protect private property and to protect agricultural operations, not to target journalists or would-be whistleblowers," Withroe said.

But Marceau argued that the law was actually inspired by animus toward journalists and whistleblowers, citing comments from lawmakers during the debate.

"The state can't just wave the wand of private property and protect any law it wants," said Marceau, who is also backed by a coalition of food safety groups and individual rights advocates.

Winmill said he hopes to issue his ruling next week. If he rejects the arguments, the case will likely head to a full trial.

Idaho is one of seven states with ag gag legislation, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Similar litigation — also prompted by the Animal Legal Defense Fund — is currently underway in Utah.

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Lawmakers passed the statute last February after a Los Angeles-based vegetarian and animal-rights group called Mercy for Animals released a video showing animal abuse at one of Idaho's largest dairies. The video of workers at Bettencourt Dairies shows workers stomping, beating, dragging and sexual abusing the cows.

But Idaho's dairy industry says that the group used its videos to unfairly hurt Bettencourt's business — not try to stop abuse.

Winmill already denied Idaho's request to dismiss the lawsuit last September.

"This is really the cutting edge of the interstitial boundaries of First Amendment law," he said. "The decision here has no politics and has no economic interests. It's just a question of what the First Amendment means and how it should be applied."

People convicted under the law face up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine.

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