Advocates for Free Speech, Animals, Workers, Free Speech and Food Safety Move Forward with Challenges of Agricultural Giants Following Victories in Utah and Idaho

February 27, 2018

Des Moines, Iowa — Today the Federal District Court for the Southern District of Iowa denied Iowa’s motion to dismiss a pending lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the state’s “ag gag” law, a positive development for the opponents of the law.

In October 2017, a coalition of public interest groups and journalists led by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Iowa, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the Center for Food Safety, and Public Justice filed the lawsuit.

Iowa clients are Bailing Out Benji, an Iowa nonprofit organization focused on protecting the welfare of dogs and puppies, and Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (ICCI), an organization whose priorities include fighting factory farms to advance worker justice, protecting Iowa’s clean water and environment, and advancing racial justice and immigrants’ rights.

“This is an important decision, because it allows us to continue to challenge Iowa’s egregious Ag Gag law as a violation of free speech,” said Rita Bettis, 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.”

“Ag gag clearly is a violation of Iowans’ First Amendment rights to free speech,” Bettis said. “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.”

Iowa’s ag gag law criminalizes undercover investigations at factory farms, slaughterhouses, and puppy mills, effectively silencing advocates and ensuring that animal cruelty, unsafe food safety practices, environmental hazards, and inhumane working conditions go unreported. The coalition argues Iowa’s ag gag law violates the First Amendment of the Constitution, which grants freedom of speech under the law. Federal courts have already struck down ag gag laws in Idaho and Utah as unconstitutional.

Today's decision holds that the plaintiffs have adequately alleged that the Iowa ag gag law violates the First Amendment, because the statute discriminates on the basis of content and viewpoint. The decision allows the lawsuit to move forward; the plaintiffs are ultimately seeking a declaration that the statute is unconstitutional.

The central objective of Iowa’s ag gag law is to prevent whistleblowers from collecting information about these facilities and distributing that information to the public. The animal agriculture industry lobbies to pass these laws in order to hide cruel practices and violations of laws designed to protect animals, employees and consumers.

Iowa’s ag gag law has unfortunately succeeded in hindering free speech and stamping out exposés of the animal agriculture industry. In the years leading up to the passage of the law in 2012, there were at least 10 undercover investigations of factory farms in Iowa. Since the law’s passage, there have been zero.

Undercover investigations are one of the few ways for the public to receive critical information about animal agriculture operations. A 2012 consumer survey conducted by Purdue University’s Department of Agricultural Economics and Department of Animal Sciences found that the public relies on the information gathered and presented by animal protection groups and investigative journalists more than they rely on industry groups and the government combined.

To see the decision, go to: https://www.aclu-ia.org/sites/default/files/39_order_on_mtd.pdf

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