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Food safety, animal activists sue Iowa over 2012 ‘ag-gag’ law

Animal activists and the Center for Food Safety sued the state of Iowa in federal court Tuesday, claiming its law to prevent “agriculture production facility” fraud violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

The “ag-gag” law hasn’t seen much use in the Hawkeye State since its passage in 2012. Similar laws in other states have come and gone via legal challenges.

Unlike the challenges in other states, the groups suing Iowa contend that state’s law protects not only inhumane animal agriculture operations but also hundreds of puppy mills.

The 41-page complaint was filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa by an American Civil Liberties Union attorney. The plaintiffs are the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF); People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA); Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement; Bailing Out Benji; and the Center for Food Safety.

The Iowa complaint makes many of the same arguments the groups used in Idaho and Utah, including the assertion that the legislative intent behind the Iowa law includes statements that show “animus” toward animal protection advocates.

New in the Iowa case are allegations that the “ag-gag” law is protecting 250 puppy mills in the state from outside scrutiny. Also, Montgomery County Attorney Bruce Swanson and Iowa’s governor and attorney general are named defendants in the civil action.

A recent PETA investigation of a Montgomery County egg farm is apparently the reason why the lawsuit names Swanson. The lawsuit does not name any of Iowa’s 98 other county attorneys.

The complaint, not yet answered by Iowa, claims the animal agriculture industry has a nationwide campaign “to silence the undercover investigations and corresponding media coverage.”

Anyone who obtains access to an agriculture production facility by false pretenses or makes a false statement on an application or agreement to for employment at an agriculture production facility is guilty of Iowa’s misdemeanor crime of agriculture production facility fraud. The person must know the statement is false and must have the intent to commit an act not authorized by the owner of the production facility at the point the statement is made.

Iowa is known for pork and poultry production, including 45 million egg-laying hens and more than 20 million pigs. A statement from ALDF Tuesday said most of Iowa’s agricultural animals are “raised on factory farms, subject to intensive confinement, routine mutilations, and deplorable conditions.”

The ALDF statement also said the Iowa “ag-gag” law is “to prevent whistleblowers from collecting information about these facilities and distributing that information to the public.”

Animal welfare activists see themselves as being on a bit of a roll when it comes to challenging so-called ag-gag laws that make it a crime to obtain employment in animal agriculture through fraudulent means. Such methods have been used in the past by activists and to expose illegal practices at animal operations.

In state-by-state federal court challenges, activists have chalked up some victories, including:

  • The August 2015 ruling by the U.S. District Court for Idaho, striking down the Gem State’s ag-gag law as unconstitutional under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
  • The July 2017 ruling by the U.S. District Court for Utah, striking down the Bee Hive State’s ag-gag law as unconstitutional under the First Amendment.
  • The September ruling this year by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit that reversed a federal court in Wyoming and held that Wyoming’s “Data Trespass” law, which limits the collection of resource data from private lands, does involve conduct protected by the First Amendment. The 10th Circuit sent the case back to the federal court in Wyoming to work out the conflicts.

While not technically an “ag-gag” law, Wyoming’s “Data Trespass” statute has many of the same impacts, according to activists.

In Idaho, animal activists and animal agriculture operators are waiting on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit to rule on Idaho’s appeal of a federal trial court’s decision striking down the state’s ag-gag statute. A three-judge panel, sitting in Seattle, heard oral arguments in the appeal in May this year.

On the animal agriculture side of the issue, proponents of ag-gag laws won when a challenge to North Carolina’s statue tossed out of federal court.

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