Lawsuit takes aim at Iowa’s newest ‘ag gag’ law

By: - August 10, 2021 1:00 pm

Workers in a pork processing plant, 2016. (Stock photo by USGAO/Wikipedia)

An animal rights organization along with a coalition of public interest groups, is suing the state of Iowa over the constitutionality of the recently passed Iowa Recording Ban.

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa, challenges the latest variation of the state’s so-called ag gag law. House File 775 was signed into law earlier this year and provides enhanced penalties for those who trespass for the purpose of engaging in video or audio recording.

The lawsuit claims the new law criminalizes the tools of undercover journalism and investigations and is in violation of the First Amendment, as were the state’s previous two attempts to enact laws restricting information-gathering activities at farm operations.

An earlier ag gag law, passed by state legislators in 2012, was struck down by the courts in 2019. That ruling is now before the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.

After Iowa passed a second version of the law, a group of animal rights advocates sued and won a preliminary injunction in 2019 that barred the law’s enforcement while the case worked its way through the court system.

While the two previous laws targeted investigative deception and misrepresentation to gain access to, or employment at, industrial agriculture facilities, the new law is broader in focus and creates a new criminal offense that carries penalties for recording in other locations, such as open areas of legislators’ offices and parts of businesses that are routinely open to the public.

The law states that any person who trespasses and “knowingly places or uses a camera or electronic surveillance device that transmits or records images or data while the device is on the trespassed property” is guilty of a crime. A first offense is an aggravated misdemeanor, punishable by up to two years in jail and a fine of between $855 and $8,540.

Noting that the new penalties for trespassing while using cameras are more severe than those for trespassing with the intent of committing a hate crime, the plaintiffs allege “Iowa has created a unique crime to provide special, severe deterrents” for activities related to advocacy and free speech.

They allege Iowa lawmakers attempted to “create the gloss of legitimacy” by making the new criminal offense applicable to industries other than agriculture, enabling it to claim its aim is not just to prevent animal-rights groups from exercising their right of free speech. “Numerous courts have rejected this gambit of passing broader laws that target speech and conduct,” the plaintiffs allege, pointing out that various lawmakers have openly stated the law is intended to protect “farmers” and “meatpacking facilities.”

Named as defendants in the lawsuit are Gov. Kim Reynolds, Attorney General Tom Miller, Cass County Attorney Vanessa Strazdas, Dallas County Attorney Chuck Sinnard and Washington County Attorney John Gish. The county prosecutors are named as defendants because they enforce the laws in counties where the plaintiffs say they “would consider engaging in activities prohibited by” the new law, and are now deterred from doing so.

The plaintiffs include the Animal Legal Defense Fund, which two years ago successfully sued to shut down the Cricket Hollow Zoo in Manchester; Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement; People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals; Bailing Out Benji; and Food & Water Watch.

The state has yet to file a response to the lawsuit. The governor’s spokesman, Pat Garrett, did not respond immediately to a request for comment Tuesday.

During debate of the bill in the Iowa Senate in March, the Iowa Pork Producers Association spoke in favor of the legislation. “We believe that this bill protects the private property interests of our members across the state who take a lot of pride in raising safe, affordable, wholesome product,” said lobbyist Drew Mogler. “It really serves them to protect what they’re doing on their farms from various people have hidden agendas and things like that.”

Tyler Lobdell, staff attorney at Food & Water Watch, called the Iowa law the latest in a series of attempts “to hide from the public what really goes on at factory farms … Like the many before it, Iowa’s latest attempt to silence inconvenient truths must be struck down.”

The ALDF said the Iowa case represents the ninth lawsuit challenging various states’ ag gag laws. Similar lawsuits have resulted in courts striking down such laws in North Carolina, Kansas, Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming. North Carolina and Kansas have appealed those rulings and decisions in those appeals are still pending.

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing.