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Federal judge strikes down latest version of Iowa ‘ag-gag’ law

Iowa’s efforts to bar recording of animal abuse in livestock facilities has twice before been found to violate the First Amendment.

DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) — A federal judge in Des Moines held Monday that the latest version of Iowa’ so-called “ag-gag” law aimed at preventing animal rights groups and journalists from video recording conditions in livestock facilities violates the First Amendment.

U.S. District Judge Stephanie Rose granted the animal rights groups’ motion for summary judgment, saying Iowa’s state law threatening criminal penalties for trespassing on livestock facilities’ property for purposes of recording evidence of animal abuse violates free speech rights.

“It is true that the Act does not prohibit the editing, publication, or distribution of recordings or photographs on trespassed property,” Rose wrote in reference to Iowa’s law. “But it restricts the capture of such recordings or photographs, rendering the remaining steps in the protected video production process impossible. The act of recording is a necessary predicate to produce this protected speech and is protected under the First Amendment.”

The complaint was filed last year by the Animal Legal Defense Fund, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and three other groups.

“It is past time for the animal agriculture industry to acknowledge that consumers do not want to support an industry that is cruel to animals — and Iowa cannot infringe on our constitutional rights in order to hide abuse,” Animal Legal Defense Fund Executive Director Stephen Wells said in a statement released Monday. “The state of Iowa continues to fail in its efforts to prohibit whistleblowers and undercover investigators from exposing the inhumane treatment of animals, worker safety concerns, and food-safety issues in factory farms and slaughterhouses.”

The office of Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, a Democrat who was named as a defendant in the complaint, said it would have no comment on Monday’s ruling. The office of Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, a Republican who is also a named defendant, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Monday’s ruling is the third time since 2017 that Iowa federal judges have struck down the state’s efforts to criminalize gathering evidence of animal abuse. The matter has also been addressed by the the Eighth Circuit, which held the original version of Iowa’s ag-gag law violated the First Amendment.

Iowa state legislators rewrote the law in response to the appellate court ruling, but that version was subsequently found unconstitutional by Judge Rose in a ruling consistent with the previous holding that the law violated the First Amendment by regulating the content of speech.

The newest version of Iowa’s law makes it a crime for a person committing a crime of trespass to knowingly place or use a camera or electronic surveillance device that transmits or records images or data while on the private property. A first offense is an aggravated misdemeanor; a second or subsequent offense is a felony.

Rose, a Barack Obama appointee, dismissed the state’s argument that the animal rights groups are seeking First Amendment protection for trespassing.

While it is “constitutionally permissible” for a private property owner to exclude from their property someone who wishes to speak, she wrote that is different from the government’s ability to jail the person for that speech. “This is what the government cannot do,” she wrote. “Here, the Act creates criminal liability — enforced by the State of Iowa — based on an individual engaging in activity protected by the First Amendment.”

The animal rights groups are represented in this case by Des Moines attorney Roxanne Conlin and by Matthew Strugar of Los Angeles.

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