Des Moines, Iowa – A coalition of public interest groups has filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa that challenges the constitutionality of Iowa’s newest ag gag law.
In March, Gov. Kim Reynolds signed into law the “agricultural production facility trespass,” which like an earlier ag gag law that was struck down in Iowa, criminalizes investigations at agricultural facilities, including food and meat processing plants, livestock facilities, and puppy mills.
In January, a federal court struck down a different Iowa ag gag law, which the Iowa Legislature passed in 2012. This newer ag gag law was a direct response to the earlier law being deemed unconstitutional.
The new law creates a new crime—called “agricultural production facility trespass”—that makes it illegal for a person to gain access to an agricultural production facility through deception if the person intends to cause “economic harm or other injury” of the facility. Deception is defined broadly to include both lies and omissions, and there is no definition or limitation on what “other injury” includes.
But the First Amendment protects exposés, boycotts, and protests of agricultural facilities, even though those activities may injure a business’s profits and reputation.
“The legal challenge we filed today is important to protecting free speech in Iowa,” said Rita Bettis Austen, ACLU of Iowa legal director. “An especially grievous harm to our democracy occurs when the government uses the power of the criminal laws to target unpopular speech to protect those with power—which is exactly what this law is about. The Ag Gag 2.0 law aims to silence critics of worker rights abuses, animal cruelty, unsafe food safety practices, and environmental hazards in agricultural facilities. Legislators rushed to pass Ag Gag 2.0 shortly after the federal injunction of Ag Gag 1.0 came down. Enough is enough. Free speech means the government is not allowed to put the PR interests of one industry above the constitutional rights of its critics.”
The plaintiffs are the Animal Legal Defense Fund, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the Center for Food Safety, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, and Bailing Out Benji. The plaintiffs are represented by the ACLU of Iowa, Public Justice, the Law Office of Matthew Strugar, Justin Marceau and Alan Chen of the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, and in-house counsel for the plaintiff organizations.
Federal courts in other states have struck down similar ag gag laws, saying they also wrongly suppress free speech.
Violations, such as trespassing, are already covered by Iowa law. Ag Gag 2.0 once again tries to give special protection to agriculture over all other industries in our state, and over the free speech rights of those who would voice opposition to them. It has a chilling effect on journalists, advocates, and others in exposing problematic worker conditions, health and safety violations, and animal cruelty inside agricultural facilities.
Adam Mason, state policy organizing director at Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, one of the plaintiffs, said, “The intent of Iowa’s ag gag law is clear. It is to silence those who would expose unsafe working conditions, environmental pollution, or other potential violations at factory farms and other animal facilities. The state has carved out unfair rules for industrialized agriculture that no other industry has, and that is harmful to workers and the environment because it keeps us from effectively documenting abuses.”
Mindi Callison, executive director of one of the plaintiffs, Bailing out Benji, said, “On behalf of Bailing Out Benji and all of our supporters, we are deeply saddened that we have to, again, go to court to try to hold the state of Iowa accountable for violating our first amendment rights in their recent passing of Ag Gag 2.0.”
“It took our Iowa legislators just 10 days to submit, discuss, vote on and sign this new bill into law, immediately after Ag Gag 1.0 had just been defeated in the courts. That means that even though we've won the right to do our work to protect puppies and dogs in striking down Ag Gag 1.0, and even though the state’s motion for stay was denied, we're still impeded in exercising our free speech as an organization by Ag Gag 2.0,” Callison said.
“Now more than ever it is important to give a voice to those that have none and make sure that commercial dog breeding facilities are complying with the laws. Passing this law 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 and other agricultural facilities and opposing the sale of puppy mill puppies in pet stores around the country. Bailing Out Benji will continue to be a voice for the puppy mill dogs here in Iowa and across the nation by challenging this unconstitutional legislation,” Callison said.
The lawsuit complaint can be found here.