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Iowa ‘Ag-Gag’ Law Aimed At Suppressing Journalism Against Agribusiness Is Ruled Unconstitutional

A federal court in Iowa ruled the state’s corporate-backed “ag-gag” law, which targets journalists and activists, is unconstitutional.

Ag-gag laws are essentially farm secrecy statutes that were proposed and passed in multiple states to suppress and criminalize speech about industrial agricultural production.

Previously, federal courts in Idaho, and Utah found the laws violate constitutional rights.

In Iowa, a lawsuit was filed by the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (CCI), Bailing Out Benji, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), and the Center for Food Safety against the state’s ag-gag law that was passed in 2012.

“By its own terms,” the court ruled [PDF], the law criminalizes speech that inflicts no “specific harm” on property owners, “ranges very broadly,” and risks significantly chilling speech that is not covered under the statute.

“While the First Amendment doctrine permits the regulation of some categories of lies—those that cause a legally cognizable harm or material gain—it does not permit [an ag-gag law], which is so broad in its scope it is already discouraging the telling of a lie in contexts where harm is unlikely and the need for prohibition is small.”

The court added, “The right to make the kinds of false statements implicated by [the ag-gag law]—whether they be investigative deceptions or innocuous lies—is protected by our country’s guarantee of free speech and expression.”

Iowa’s ag-gag law amended a part of the state’s criminal code that already contained prohibitions “against disrupting, destroying, or damaging property at an animal facility” or on “crop operation property.”

It created the offense of “agricultural production facility fraud,” that criminalized anyone who “obtains access to an agricultural production facility by false pretenses” or “makes a false statement or representation as part of an application or agreement to be employed at an agricultural production facility, if the person knows the statement to be false and makes the statement with an intent to commit an act no authorized by the owner of the agricultural production facility.”

The state of Iowa maintained the law was necessary to protect “harms to property and biosecurity.” Yet, the court determined the state’s interest in protecting these interests do not outweigh protections for speech under the First Amendment nor did they prove that false statements need to be prohibited so “biosecurity” is not threatened.

“Defendants have made no record as to how biosecurity is threatened by a person making a false statement to get access to, or employment in, an agricultural production facility,” the court stated. “Nor, in the absence of any record to the contrary, will the court assume that biological harm turn on a human vector making a false statement in order to gain access to the facility.”

Like in other states, the law cannot stand up to scrutiny because it is designed to “suppress any unflattering coverage of inhumane slaughterhouse practices, unsanitary factory conditions, and worker abuses,” etc.

Multiple lawmakers wanted the ag-gag law passed in Iowa to stop “subversive acts” by “groups that go out and gin up campaigns to give the agricultural industry a bad name.”

In 2018, an Idaho federal appeals court upheld significant parts of a district court decision that found the state’s “ag-gag” law was unconstitutional.

“Idaho’s criminalization of misrepresentations to enter a production facility and ban on audio and video recordings of a production facility’s operations cover protected speech under the First Amendment and cannot survive constitutional scrutiny,” the appeals court ruled.

The appeals court did not ignore the history of the state’s “ag-gag” law and why corporations throughout the United States seek to suppress speech and discourage investigative journalism.

Lawmakers pursued the ag-gag law after a “secretly-filmed exposé of the operation of an Idaho dairy farm” circulated. “By all accounts, the video was disturbing: dairy workers were shown dragging a cow across the ground by a chain attached to her neck; twisting cows’ tails to inflict excruciating pain; and repeatedly beating, kicking, and jumping on cows to force them to move,” the appeals court noted.

The “ag-lag law” in Wyoming was also ruled unconstitutional. It was different from the law in Idaho or Iowa in that it specifically targeted individuals who entered “open land for the purpose of collecting resource data.” It was designed to suppress investigations into environmental pollution.

“Ag-gag laws are a pernicious attempt by animal exploitation industries to hide some of the worst forms of animal abuse in the United States,” declared Stephen Wells, the executive director for Animal Legal Defense Fund. “Today’s victory makes it clear that the government cannot protect these industries at the expense of our constitutional rights.”

Yet, as Wells acknowledged, the law achieved its goal in the past seven years. No undercover investigation has taken place since the law was passed in 2012.

In at least 19 states, legislation criminalizing journalism, whistleblowing, and undercover investigations has been defeated.

Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, North Carolina, and North Dakota have ag-gag laws. Lawsuits against the law are pending in Kansas and North Carolina.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."