Judge says Iowa’s third ag-gag law is unconstitutional, like previous versions

By: - September 26, 2022 9:36 pm

A federal judge has struck down Iowa's latest attempt to criminalize the use of cameras in agriculture facilities and other businesses. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

For the third time in five years, a judge has struck down the Iowa Legislature’s efforts to criminalize the use of cameras in agriculture facilities and other businesses.

“The United States Constitution does not allow such a singling out of the exercise of a constitutional right,” U.S. District Judge Stephanie Rose ruled on Monday. She said the latest version of Iowa’s so-called “ag-gag laws,” which are aimed at limiting undercover investigations into businesses, “does not limit its reach to specific instances of using a camera, such as a ‘peeping Tom’ situation. Rather, the act only punishes a trespasser exercising a constitutional right.”

The court handed the animal-welfare organizations that sued the state a decisive, two-pronged victory. It denied the state’s motion for a dismissal of the lawsuit that challenged the law, and then granted the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment in their favor.

The state and the plaintiffs now have 30 days to provide the judge with proposed language for an injunction blocking the law’s enforcement.

Mindi Callison, executive director of Bailing Out Benji, an Iowa animal-welfare group that was part of the lawsuit, said she was “elated” by Monday’s ruling.

“Now more than ever it is important to give a voice to those that have none and make sure that commercial dog-breeding facilities and other agricultural facilities are complying with the laws,” she said. “Passing these types of laws to protect agricultural facilities at all costs is irresponsible. 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.”

Three laws, four court decisions against the state

The law that was struck down Monday was only the latest in a series of attempts by the governor and the Iowa Legislature to block undercover investigations conducted by animal-welfare groups at agricultural facilities.

Those earlier laws were successfully challenged in federal court, prompting state legislators to craft new statutes that were intended to have the same effect.

In the first case, Senior U.S. District Court Judge James E. Gritzner determined the law had violated the First Amendment. That 2017 law consisted of two provisions. The first, known as the “access provision,” prohibited a person from “obtaining access to an agricultural production facility by false pretenses.” The second provision specifically prohibited a person from obtaining access to an agricultural facility through a falsified employment application.

Gritzner determined the law was a content-based regulation of speech because it required officials to examine the content of statements to determine whether they violated the law. Gritzner entered a permanent injunction blocking that law’s enforcement.

On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reversed Gritzner in part, but upheld the injunction based on its agreement with Gritzner that the employment provision was “too broad” to avoid violating the First Amendment.

The Iowa Legislature then enacted a similar law that sought to prohibit access to agriculture facilities through “deception with the intent to cause physical and economic harm” to the targeted facility.

Judge Rose took up that case and found — consistent with Gritzner’s prior decision — that the law was viewpoint-based, which amounted to an illegal, content-based regulation of speech. The law regulated speech based on viewpoints and imposed liability based on “the intent of the speaker,” Rose found.

Judge: Newest law also ‘regulates’ speech

The newest ag-gag law, which Rose effectively struck down on Monday, attempted to make it a crime for a person committing trespass to use a camera or electronic surveillance device that records images while the device is on the trespassed property.

On Aug. 10, 2021, a group of animal-welfare organizations – Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, Bailing Out Benji, Food & Water Watch, the Animal Legal Defense Fund and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals — sued the state, asserting that the new law violated the First Amendment.

They asked for a permanent injunction blocking the law’s enforcement and argued the law violated the First Amendment and that it was overbroad because it’s unclear which conduct is prohibited or permissible under the law.

The state argued otherwise, saying the law regulated conduct and not protected speech, which would mean that the First Amendment issues raised in previous lawsuits didn’t apply.

In siding with the plaintiffs, Rose noted that the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals had previously stated that the acts of recording, producing, editing, and publishing photos and videos are a form of protected speech. Iowa’s law, Rose ruled, prohibits the use of cameras, which prevents the production of a finished photo or video, which in turn restricts protected speech.

“It is true that the act does not prohibit the editing, publication, or distribution of recordings or photographs on trespassed property,” Rose stated. “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.”

Rose then turned to the issue of whether the law was “narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest” so that it advanced the state’s interests without being so broad in scope that it needlessly infringed on speech.

The plaintiffs argued that while the state can impose laws that protect businesses and their trade secrets by prohibiting unauthorized entry, invasion, theft, and other activities, the state cannot take the additional step of regulating the act of speech by banning the use of cameras.

Rose agreed.

“There is a dearth of evidence to support the stated purposes for the act, despite the fact that the law regulates a constitutional right,” Rose stated in her ruling. “The decision to single out this conduct is most plainly shown by defendants’ description of the act as ‘enhancing the penalty for conduct that is already prohibited by law.’ That is the issue with the law: It is enhancing a criminal penalty based on the exercise of speech — or a predicate component of speech.

While acknowledging “property rights and privacy are important governmental interest,” Rose said “there is next to nothing in the record to allow the court to find that the state narrowed the act appropriately — even though this burden rests on the state. Furthermore, there are other laws currently in effect which cover many of the instances where use of a video camera or electronic surveillance would raise issues relating to privacy concerns … The existence of these other laws begs the question of what the act was intended to accomplish beyond targeting the expressive activities of organization such as the plaintiffs.”

The defendants in the case are Gov. Kim Reynolds, Attorney General Tom Miller, Cass County Attorney Vanessa Strazdas, Dallas County Attorney Chuck Sinnard and Washington County Attorney John Gish.

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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. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.

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