Iowa legislature passes new ‘ag gag’ law

Pigs in a CAFO (concentrated animal feed operation). — photo via the United States Geological Survey, public domain

Two months after a federal judge struck down Iowa’s “ag gag” law as unconstitutional, the Iowa legislature passed a new, similar law on Tuesday.

The Agricultural Facility Trespass Act makes it a crime for a person to use “deception” to gain access to an agriculture 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.”

When states first began implementing ag gag laws in 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 his Jan. 9, ruling Senior Judge James Gritzner of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa struck down the state’s previous ag gag law — the Agricultural Production Facility Fraud Act of 2012 — for just this reason.

“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.

But during floor debates in both chambers of the legislature on Tuesday, lawmakers supporting the bill claimed it was intended to prevent trespassing and enhance biosecurity at agricultural facilities (a category broad enough to include large-scale dog-breeding businesses), and not prevent the public from learning about abusive practices or unsafe conditions.

Sen. Ken Rozenboom, a Republican from Oskaloosa, said current law “simply does not protect against someone entering property under false pretenses.”

Those of us in animal agriculture lose sleep over the thought of certain foreign animal diseases that could devastate our farms and bring Iowa to its knees or, maybe, put Iowa flat on its back. The need for managing strict biosecurity practices is a critical component of this bill.

In the Iowa House, Republican Rep. Jarad Klein of Keota echoed those concerns, saying he was worried that people might lie on job applications in order to gain access to a pig farm to deliberately spread diseases like African Swine Fever.

“If we don’t make sure our biosecurity is really tight, then we could have a real, long-term economic impact in a very negative way to the entire state,” Klein said.

The state made similar arguments while defending its 2012 law, but Judge Gritzner explicitly rejected them, because existing laws already covered those concerns.

As to private property and trespass concerns, an already existing section of Chapter 717A of the Iowa Code provides that persons ‘shall not, without the consent of the owner’ do various acts, including entering the facility to disrupt or otherwise harm the operation.

Biosecurity is effectively and appropriately protected by the last section of Chapter 717A, which prohibits the willful possession, transportation, or transfer of ‘a pathogen with an intent to threaten the health of an animal or crop.’

“So we’re doing another bill pretty similar to the last one which is going to end up … costing taxpayers more money [to defend in court],” Democratic Rep. Sharon Stockman from Mason City said during the House floor debate.

On Wednesday afternoon, Gov. Kim Reynolds said in a press release she would since the bill on Mar. 14. The law will go into effect as soon as the governor signs it.

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