DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) - The fate of an Iowa law criminalizing undercover investigations of slaughterhouses and meatpacking factories hangs in the balance after a federal judge ruled groups challenging the statute made valid free-speech claims under the First Amendment.
Iowa's so-called "ag-gag" law makes it a misdemeanor for reporters and animal rights activists to go undercover as workers to expose animal cruelty, food contamination, environmental violations and other dangers.
Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on behalf of a coalition of animal rights and food safety groups – including the Animal Legal Defense Fund, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and Center for Food Safety– challenging the controversial law. The state then asked the court to dismiss the case for lack of standing.
On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge James Gritzner ruled that the coalition's equal-protection claims under the 14th Amendment failed. However, he refused to throw out the lawsuit, finding the groups alleged sufficient facts to support their free-speech claims under the First Amendment.
The judge found the First Amendment does not shield certain kinds of fraudulent statements that would cause actual, material harm. Iowa had not explained how an investigator posing as a bona fide employee would cause an owner damages.
"Overbroad prohibitions on false statements harm First Amendment values by chilling true statements," Gritzner wrote in the 38-page order. "Here, plaintiffs have alleged that § 717A.3A criminalizes the telling of lies that, by themselves, not only cause merely nominal harm but that also facilitate core First-Amendment speech regarding issues of public import."
The coalition now hopes the judge will go one step further and rule that the law is unconstitutional.
Rita Bettis, legal director for the ACLU of Iowa, said in a statement that the law violates Iowans' right to free speech.
"It has effectively silenced advocates and ensured that animal cruelty, unsafe food safety practices, environmental hazards, and inhumane working conditions go unreported for years. Its time has finally come to be stricken from state law," Bettis said.
Justin Marceau is a constitutional professor at the University of Denver who joined the Animal Legal Defense Fund to fight the ag-gag law. He said Tuesday’s ruling was a "great win for transparency" and was confident the court would join judges who overturned similar laws in Utah and Idaho.
Eric Tabor, Iowa's chief deputy attorney general, declined to comment on the court’s ruling.
“However, we would note that, procedurally, a ruling on a motion to dismiss is very early in the litigation of a case," Tabor said in a phone interview.
A listed extension for Governor Kim Reynolds' spokeswoman Brenna Smith returned a prerecorded message and her number does not accept voicemails.
Ron Birkenholz, a spokesman for the Iowa Pork Producers Association, said the law offers "meaningful protection to farmers from those who seek and obtain farm employment under pretenses." He wrote in an emailed statement that the court had not decided whether the law violated the First Amendment and argued it protects "all citizens' constitutional rights."
Former Iowa Governor Terry Branstad signed the ag-gag bill into law in March 2012 after a push from agricultural industry groups and legislators. The law makes it a crime for a person to seek employment in meatpacking plants or other facilities to go undercover. A first conviction could put violators in jail for up to one year. A second offense is an aggravated misdemeanor that carries up to two years.
In the years before the bill's enactment, there were there were at least 10 undercover investigations of factory farms in Iowa but there have been none since, according to the ACLU.
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