Activists Take Aim at Second Iowa Ag-Gag Law

(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)

DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) – Advocates for animal rights and food safety filed a federal lawsuit Monday claiming Iowa’s new version of a so-called “ag-gag” law criminalizing undercover investigations in livestock facilities is unconstitutional for the same reasons the first law was struck down by a federal judge in January.

Iowa’s second effort to prevent journalists or activists from entering livestock facilities under false pretenses to report on animal abuse was passed and signed into law just two months after U.S. District Judge James Gritzner ruled that Iowa’s law passed in 2012 violated the First Amendment.

The new law makes it a crime to use deception to enter or get a job in an agricultural production facility “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.”

All the players are the same in the new lawsuit: The plaintiffs are the Animal Legal Defense Fund, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Center for Food Safety, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, and Bailing Out Benji. Named defendants are Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, Attorney General Tom Miller and Montgomery County Attorney Drew Swanson.

A spokesman for the attorney general said Miller’s office had no comment on the new lawsuit. Miller has filed an appeal of the January ruling with the Eighth Circuit.

A request for comment from the governor’s office was not immediately returned Monday.

Judge Gritzner enjoined Iowa from enforcing the 2012 law, and that injunction remains in effect while the appeal is pending. The new ag-gag law was signed by the governor March 14 and went into effect immediately.

Represented by attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, the animal rights and food safety advocates are seeking another injunction against the new version of the ag-gag law.

Iowa legislators who pushed the new version argued that it would be upheld as constitutional because it was modeled on an Idaho statute.

Most provisions of the Idaho law were struck down last year by the Ninth Circuit. But the San Francisco-based appeals court upheld a provision that criminalizes obtaining records of an agricultural production facility by misrepresentation, and it left in place a provision making it a crime to knowingly obtaining employment with an agricultural facility with the intent to cause economic or other injury.

Iowa ACLU Legal Director Rita Bettis Austen said at a press conference Monday that Idaho’s law does not criminalize injury to a reputation, which Iowa’s does.

“We are not challenging the part of the law that criminalizes the attempt to gain access with intent to cause physical harm,” she said. “That type of vandalism is not protected by the First Amendment. What we are talking about are exposes – truthful statements about what’s going on with these businesses and facilities – that may lead to reputational harm because consumers don’t like what’s going on inside of them. And that’s protected by the First Amendment.”

Iowa’s new law, just like the old one, “targets squarely protected speech, especially using undercover investigative methods,” Bettis Austen said Monday.

Such investigations have turned up evidence of abuses in recent years, according to the complaint.

“In the last decade alone, journalists and animal protection advocates have conducted more than 80 undercover investigations at factory farms in the United States, virtually all of which would be criminalized by the new ag-gag law,” the lawsuit states. “Without exception, each investigation has exposed horrific animal suffering and many have led to food safety recalls, citations for environmental and labor violations, evidence of health code violations, plant closures, criminal animal cruelty convictions, and civil litigation.”

Mindi Callison, executive director of one of the plaintiff groups, Bailing Out Benji, said in a statement Monday that “it is important to give a voice to those that have none and make sure that commercial dog breeding facilities are complying with the laws.”

“Passing this law to protect agricultural facilities at all costs is irresponsible,” Callison said. “We are honored to be standing on the right side of history in order to expose and educate the public about the atrocities that are happening behind closed doors at puppy mills in Iowa and other agricultural facilities and opposing the sale of puppy mill puppies in pet stores around the country.”

The plaintiffs in Monday’s lawsuit are represented by the ACLU of Iowa; Public Justice; Matthew Strugar; Justin Marceau and Alan Chen of the University of Denver Sturm College of Law; and in-house counsel for the plaintiff organizations.

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