Federal judge issue injunction against Iowa’s new ‘ag gag’ law

Signing ceremony for the Agricultural Facility Trespass Act on March 14, 2019 — courtesy of Office of Gov. Kim Reynolds. Pigs in a CAFO (concentrated animal feed operation). — United States Geological Survey

Iowa won’t be able to enforce its new “ag gag” law until a federal court rules on its constitutionality. Senior Judge James Gritzner of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa issued a preliminary injunction on Tuesday, finding the public interest groups challenging the law were likely to succeed when the case is tried.

The legislature passed the Agricultural Facility Trespass Act in March, two months after a federal court ruled the ag gag law it passed in 2012 was unconstitutional.

The new law, which is basically the same as the 2012 law, makes it a crime for a person to use “deception” to gain access to an agricultural production facility, or apply for a job at one, “with the intent to cause physical or economic harm or other injury to the agricultural production facility’s operations, agricultural animals, crop, owner, personnel, equipment, building, premises, business interest, or customer.”

“The Ag Gag 2.0 law aims to silence critics of worker rights abuses, animal cruelty, unsafe food safety practices, and environmental hazards in agricultural facilities,” Rita Bettis Austen, ACLU of Iowa legal director, said in a statement when the group filed the lawsuit challenging the law in April.

Bettis Austen called the bill Gov. Kim Reynolds signed into law during a photo op two days after it was passed, an attempt to use “the power of the criminal laws to target unpopular speech to protect those with power.”

She added, “Free speech means the government is not allowed to put the PR interests of one industry above the constitutional rights of its critics.”

Iowa was one of several states to pass this type of law in the last decade. Kansas passed the country’s first law intended to prevent undercover investigations of the treatment of livestock in 1990. When states first began implementing ag gag laws in the 1990s, it was openly acknowledged that the laws were intended to prevent journalists and animal rights groups from engaging in undercover investigations at factory farms.

In 2015, a federal court struck down Idaho’s ag gag law for violating the First Amendment, and federal courts overturned laws in Utah and Wyoming for the same reason in 2017. Court challenges to the laws in Kansas and North Carolina are currently ongoing.

Lawmakers who supported the bill claimed it had nothing to do with preventing the public from learning about abusive practices or unsafe conditions at agricultural facilities (a category broad enough to include large-scale dog-breeding businesses), but was just intended to prevent trespassing and enhance biosecurity.

During a March debate in the Iowa House of Representatives, Rep. Jarad Klein, a Republican from Keota, said the bill was necessary because people might lie on job applications in order to gain access to a pig farm to deliberately spread diseases like African Swine Fever.

The state tried claiming the 2012 bill was needed to enhance biosecurity when defending that law in federal court, but the judge explicitly rejected that argument, pointing out that Iowa already had trespassing and biosecurity laws in place.

The judge who rejected the state’s biosecurity claim and struck down the 2012 law as unconstitutional was James Gritzner, the same judge who issued the injunction on Tuesday.

There is plenty of ag-gag deja vu going on: The law is basically the same as 2012, the judge is the same and it’s also the same group of plaintiffs challenging the law used. The ACLU of Iowa is representing Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the National Center for Food Safety and Bailing Out Benji, an Iowa nonprofit focused on the welfare of dogs.

The lawsuit is challenging the ag gag law on the same First Amendment grounds as the successful lawsuit against the 2012 law. In his ruling on Tuesday, Judge Gritzner found the plaintiffs were likely to win on those grounds, although he did dismiss their claim that the law was unconstitutionally vague.

“We warned Iowa legislators that Iowa’s Ag Gag law would trample on free speech in our state, and violate the Constitution,” Bettis Austen said in a statement after the injunction was issued. “The First Amendment rights of journalists, investigators, and advocates that are at stake in this case are vital to our democracy. Today’s win was an important step toward securing those rights. We have the law on our side and we will keep fighting.”

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