Des Moines, Iowa — Today a broad coalition of public interest groups filed a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the Iowa’s so-called “ag gag” law.
That Iowa law, passed in 2012, got that nickname because it criminalizes undercover investigative efforts to expose poor conditions for workers, food safety violations, environmental harms, and animal cruelty in agricultural facilities. It threatens up to one year in jail for those individuals, news media, and advocacy groups who use undercover means to document, or even in some cases report on, questionable activities in agricultural animal facilities. In some circumstances, it even criminalizes whistle-blowing by conscientious employees of these facilities.
The lawsuit asks, among other things, the federal court to 1) declare that Iowa’s ag gag law is a violation of the U.S. Constitution 2) to strike it down and 3) to enter an order blocking the state from enforcing it.
Several Public Interests Groups Involved
The lawsuit is being filed by the ACLU of Iowa, along with attorneys from the Animal Legal Defense Fund, the Law Offices of Matthew Strugar, Public Justice, and the Center for Food Safety.
They are filing it on behalf of several clients. One of those, Bailing Out Benji, is an Iowa nonprofit organization focused on protecting the welfare of dogs and puppies, and is particularly concerned about puppy mills. Another client, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (ICCI), is 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. Other clients are the national Animal Legal Defense Fund, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), and the National Center for Food Safety.
When the ag gag law (Iowa Code Chapter 717A.3A) was passed, legislative leaders openly recognized that it might be unconstitutional and stated that they would let the courts decide.
What the Ag Gag Law Does
The law makes it a misdemeanor offense, punishable by up to one year in jail, to make a false statement in connection with obtaining a job at such a facility. It also penalizes “obtaining access” to an agricultural production facility by “false pretenses.”
Before the ag gag law passed, laws already existed that criminalized trespass or fraud or other similar crimes. But the ag gag law now criminalizes access to the facilities by false pretenses and publication of the information found by those means, even when there is no harm or injury to the facility investigated.
Now, only speech criticizing the agricultural industry is targeted in this manner, differently from all other subject matters. That sort of targeting of one specific area of speech by the government is a violation of the First Amendment.
The ag gag law is particularly disturbing, too, because of the way that it inhibits the ability of journalists or watchdog organizations to collect and publish important information. The law could penalize a reporter or investigator merely for not stating that they are a reporter
or investigator and that they are there to collect information at an ag facility, if they let the assumption go uncorrected that they were there for some other purpose. That’s because the law makes gaining entry to an agricultural facility under “false pretenses” a criminal offense, and subjects those who conceal a source’s identity subject to "accessory after the fact" liability when the source gained entry by those means.
Many worthy advocacy organizations rely on collecting information, photos, and videos of conditions inside agricultural facilities to accomplish their public interest work. Iowa’s ag gag law has meant that they no longer can investigate or report on specific facilities using undercover means—typically necessary to gain access—even when they receive information from whistleblowers about violations of food safety, workers’ rights problems, environmental harm, or animal cruelty.
Ag Gag is Silencing Public Advocates
“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,” said Rita Bettis, ACLU of Iowa legal director. “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.”
Statistics show that Iowa’s ag gag law has succeeded in hindering free speech and stamping out exposés of the industry. In the years leading up to the passage of the law in 2012, there were at least ten undercover investigations of factory farms in Iowa. Since the law’s passage, there have been none.
In Idaho and Utah, similar ag gag laws have been struck down as unconstitutional.
14th Amendment Issues Also Raised
Besides First Amendment concerns, the bill also raises Fourteenth Amendment concerns of equal protection, because ag gag was motivated by legislative animus toward animal rights organizations and singled them out from exercising their free speech rights.
Mindi Callison, founder of Bailing Out Benji, said “Ag Gag has set a dangerous precedent in silencing the public when it comes to speaking out about injustices. 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.”
Adam Mason, State Policy Organizing Director at Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, said that “because of underfunded and understaffed state agencies, the job of being watchdogs for our environment and for worker safety too often falls on everyday Iowans, such as those involved in ICCI. The factory farm industry knows how effective these citizen advocates can be and fought for this ag gag law in order to silence them and others. We’re proud to join this lawsuit to roll back this special protection for ag facilities, the only type of industry in Iowa that has this egregious law blocking people from shining a light on its practices.”
Animal Legal Defense Fund Executive Director Stephen Wells said, “Iowa is trampling civil liberties for the benefit of an industry. Each American has a right to know what goes on at factory farms—especially in Iowa, which is the second highest state in agricultural production, and the source of nearly a third of the country’s pigs.”
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.
The impact of Iowa’s ag gag law in silencing that information goes beyond the plaintiffs in this case and extends throughout the state and country.
Iowa is by far the country’s biggest producer of pigs raised for meat and hens raised for eggs, along with millions of cows, chickens, turkeys, and goats raised in the state. Agricultural production facilities employ tens of thousands of workers, and have a significant environmental impact.
Additionally, puppy mills have flourished in Iowa, typically located on agricultural land, with Iowa unfortunately having been categorized as a haven for problem dog breeders by the U.S. Humane Society.