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Lawsuit against Iowa’s 'ag-gag' law allowed to proceed

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Advocates for animal health secured an initial victory this week as they continue to fight against an ag-gag law in Iowa, a top animal producing state.

The Federal District Court for the Southern District of Iowa on Tuesday (Feb. 27) denied a motion to dismiss the advocates’ lawsuit, which challenges the constitutionality of a state law that criminalizes undercover investigations at slaughterhouses, factory farms and puppy mills.

The lawsuit was filed in October 2017 by a collation of advocacy groups, led by the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Iowa, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the Center for Food Safety, and Public Justice.

The 38-page ruling issued by U.S. District Senior Judge James Gritzner means plaintiffs passed the first test in arguing the Iowa ag-gag law goes against the First Amendment and that the lawsuit can move forward.

The procedural move represents a significant win for advocates, particularly because Iowa is one largest states for industrial animal agriculture and is the country’s largest producer of pigs raised for meat and hens raised for eggs, said Matthew Liebman, director of litigation at ALDF.

ALDF has been involved in four lawsuits against ag-gag laws across the nation and in two of those cases – in Idaho and Utah – similar laws have already been ruled as unconstitutional, Liebman told IEG Policy Wednesday. 

“This is really the biggest agricultural state that we’ve taken on,” he said.

And though Gritzner’s decision to deny the state’s motion to dismiss is just a preliminary win, the coalition hopes that if the statute is ultimately declared to be unconstitutional, it could send a clear message to the remaining nine states in the nation that have enacted ag-gag laws.

The Iowa law in the center of the lawsuit was enacted in March 2012 and states that a person is committing a crime of agricultural production facility fraud, under one of two cases:

  • if that person willfully obtains access to an agricultural production facility by false pretenses, or
  • if the person makes a false statement as part of an application or employment agreement, particularly if the person knows the statement to be false, and makes it with an intent to commit an act not authorized by the owner of the agricultural production facility, knowing that the act is not authorized.

A one-time conviction under that law could lead to charges of “serious misdemeanor,” while a second or subsequent conviction is an “aggravated misdemeanor,” according to the court documents.

But according to the plaintiffs, the law is unconstitutional as it seeks to obscure cruel practices toward animals and violations of laws designed to protect animals, employees and consumers.

Undercover investigations are one of the few ways for the public to receive critical information about animal agriculture operations, said plaintiffs.

According to the advocacy groups, Iowa’s ag-gag law has succeeded in hindering free speech and stamping out exposés of the animal agriculture industry, including a 2008 undercover investigation at an Iowa pig farm, which revealed instances of workers beating pigs with rods and sticking clothespins into pigs’ eyes and faces. The case led to criminal charges being filed against multiple employees, court papers said.

In the years leading up to the passage of the law, there were at least 10 undercover investigations of farms in Iowa, but since the law was enacted the number of investigations has gone down to zero, the advocacy groups said.

In their original complaint against the state, the advocacy groups alleged that the law violates the First Amendment, “both as a law that discriminates on the basis of content and viewpoint and as an overbroad criminal sanction.” And they also argued that the law violates the Fourteenth Amendment, and was “enacted due to animus toward animal rights groups.”

In his Feb. 27 ruling, however, Gritzner said that plaintiffs “failed to plausibly allege” the claims that the law violates the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees equal protection under the law.

“Though Plaintiffs imply that singling out one industry for protection implies animus towards those activists who seek to criticize that industry, it might also simply signify solicitude for a particular industry,” he wrote in his ruling.

“Plaintiffs provide no authority for the proposition that protection for one favored group would necessarily signify animus for those opposed to that favored group, even if legislators have negative things to say about the group opposed to the favored group.”

Gritzner denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss and noted that making false statements (such as providing false information to gain employment and report violations inside a food production facility) “may ‘serve useful human objectives’ by facilitating truthful discourse or by helping others realize the truth.”

“Overbroad prohibitions on false statements harm First Amendment values by chilling true statements,” he wrote.


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