DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) – A coalition of animal rights and food safety groups filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday challenging the constitutionality of Iowa’s “ag-gag” law that makes it a crime to conduct undercover investigations at factory farms and slaughterhouses.
The Animal Legal Defense Fund, Center for Food Safety, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and two Iowa-based groups argue that the 2012 state statute prevents them from investigating abusive and unsafe practices in Iowa livestock confinements, egg production facilities, slaughterhouses and puppy mills.
They filed the lawsuit Tuesday in Des Moines federal court again Iowa Gov. Kimberly Reynolds, Attorney General Tom Miller and Montgomery County Attorney Bruce Swanson.
The groups are represented by lead attorney Rita Bettis with the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa. The two local plaintiffs are Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and Bailing Out Benji.
A spokesman for the state attorney general said Wednesday that Miller’s office had just received the complaint and was not in a position to comment. A spokesperson for the governor said the state is still reviewing the petition.
PETA and its co-plaintiffs liken their investigative efforts to the early 1900s work of author Upton Sinclair, who exposed unsanitary conditions in the American meatpacking industry.
“In the last decade, journalists and animal protection advocates have continued Sinclair’s legacy, conducting more than eighty undercover investigations at factory farms in the United States, virtually all of which would be criminalized by the Iowa statute,” the lawsuit states. “Without exception, each investigation has exposed horrific animal suffering and many 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.”
Iowa’s “ag-gag” law was supported by state agricultural groups and makes it a crime to “obtain access to an agricultural production facility by false pretenses,” including making false statements on an employment application, with the intent to commit an act “not authorized by the owner,” according to the complaint.
A first conviction is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail. A second or subsequent conviction is an aggravated misdemeanor that carries up to two years in jail. The statute also carries separate criminal penalties for those who conspire or who aid and abet in the commission of the crime.
The coalition of animal rights and food safety groups argue the statute is unconstitutional both on its face and as applied to them. They argue it violates their rights under the First Amendment and the equal protection and due process clauses of the U.S. Constitution.
“In short, the Iowa law infringes the rights of plaintiffs and gives the agriculture industry a virtual monopoly on the most relevant and probative speech on a topic that is of vital importance to the public, thereby allowing the industry to provide a misleading account of its activities and hide violations of animal cruelty, labor, environmental, and food safety laws,” the complaint states.
Iowa is the nation’s largest producer of pigs and eggs, according to the lawsuit, and there are more than 250 slaughterhouses and meat processing plants in the state.
The Hawkeye State’s egg producers made headlines in 2010 following a nationwide outbreak of salmonella traced to Quality Egg, which led to the criminal convictions of the company’s top two executives.
According to the complaint, a 2008 PETA employee-based investigation of a farm near Bayard, Iowa, documented multiple incidents of pigs being beat with metal rods and workers sticking clothespins into their eyes and faces.
“A supervisor was filmed kicking a young pig in the face, abdomen, and genitals to make her move and told the investigator, ‘You gotta beat on the bitch. Make her cry,’” the lawsuit states.
That investigation led to 22 charges of livestock neglect and abuse against six of the farm’s former employees, the groups say.
“Another investigation at a slaughterhouse in Iowa revealed the horrific treatment of cows, some of whom remained conscious for as long as two minutes after their throats had been slit,” the complaint continues. “The same facility had previously been cited for violations of occupational safety laws and child labor law.”
One plaintiff, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, says its members who are employed in such facilities are afraid to document abuses for fear of criminal prosecution.
“Prior to the ag-gag law, CCI’s members — who were workers in targeted facilities — would collect photographic evidence of poor or unsafe working conditions,” the lawsuit says. “Those photos were key components of the OSHA complaint that CCI members, who were Latino farmworkers, filed in 2012 against Angola Pork LLC, a factory farm near Algona, which resulted in citations and notifications of penalty by the agency to Angola Pork later that year. In that case, the ability for CCI, through its members, to obtain photographic evidence undercover while under the pretense of simply being workers showing up for duty, was critical to the citations.”
PETA and the other groups say there have been no undercover investigations of Iowa agricultural facilities since the ag-gag law was passed in 2012. They seek a court order preventing its enforcement.
“The Iowa ag-gag law is part of the animal agriculture industry’s nationwide campaign to silence the undercover investigations and corresponding media coverage that contribute to public debate about animal treatment and food safety,” they say.
Similar laws in Utah and Idaho have been struck down in court. Attorneys for Idaho asked the Ninth Circuit in May to reinstate its ag-gag law, arguing there is no First Amendment right to record activities on private property.
North Carolina, Missouri, Kansas, North Dakota and Montana have also passed ag-gag laws.