Federal judge strikes down Iowa’s ‘ag gag’ law

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Pigs in a CAFO (concentrated animal feed operation). — United States Geological Survey/public domain

A federal judge struck down Iowa’s “ag gag” law on Wednesday.

Senior Judge James Gritzner of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa ruled the 2012 Iowa law that made it illegal to gain access to an agricultural production facility under false pretenses with “the intent to commit an act not authorized by the owner of the agricultural production facility,” was unconstitutional. The Agricultural Production Facility Fraud Act also made it a “serious misdemeanor,” punishable by up to a year in jail, for providing false information on a job application at such a facility, if the applicant intends to record images without permission.

“The law has the effect of criminalizing undercover investigations of certain agricultural facilities [such as industrial livestock farms] and those of interest to the general public, such as puppy mills,” Gritzner wrote.

The judge included graphic examples of such investigations in his decision.

For example, in 2011, an undercover investigation at Iowa Select Farms produced reports of workers hurling small piglets onto a concrete floor. Another investigation at Iowa’s Sparboe Farms, documented reported mistreatment of hens and chicks. And yet another, conducted by PETA, exposed workers at a Hormel Foods supplier in Iowa “beating pigs with metal rods,” “sticking clothespins into pigs’ eyes and faces, and a supervisor kicking a young pig in the face, abdomen, and genitals to make her move while telling the investigator, ‘You gotta beat on the bitch. Make her cry.’” PETA’s investigation, if not also the others, was an undercover, employment-based investigation in which the investigator also performed tasks assigned by the employer.

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.

In October 2017, the ACLU of Iowa filed a lawsuit to overturn the law, on behalf of the 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 ACLU argued the law violated the First Amendment, and Judge Grizner agreed.

“We are so pleased with the Court’s order today and that the law has finally been held to be unconstitutional,” Rita Bettis Austen, ACLU of Iowa legal director, said in a press release. According to Bettis Austen, the law had “effectively silenced advocates and ensured that animal cruelty, unsafe food safety practices, environmental hazards, and inhumane working conditions go unreported for years.”

The Office of Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller handled the state’s defense of the law. The AG’s office said in a statement it is studying the decision and has not yet decided whether it will file an appeal.

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