In January, a federal judge ruled against Iowa’s law which made it illegal to go undercover at agricultural operations. The 2012 law was deemed a violation of the First Amendment. Animal activists across the country rejoiced. However, Iowa isn’t done yet.
Iowa is the top pork producing state in the nation. The 2012 law was created after several investigations brought national attention to Iowa’s agricultural industry. They created the crime of “agricultural production facility fraud” because of this negative attention.
There were multiple undercover investigations of Iowa farms documenting mistreatment of animals.
At least some of those investigations were carried out by people who took the jobs in order to expose mistreatment of animals, said James Gritzner, senior judge of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa.
Following these investigations, the Iowa Legislature began considering passage of a new law. This law would make it illegal for anyone to obtain access to an agricultural production facility “by false pretenses.” Essentially, it criminalized all undercover operations by journalists and activists.
According to The Associated Press, no undercover investigations had taken place in Iowa since the law was approved.
In January, a federal judge in Iowa ruled it was no longer a crime to go undercover at any agricultural operation. He deemed it a violation of First Amendment Rights.
The Animal Legal Defense Fund served as one of the plaintiffs in the case. Elated with the ruling, they called it a “win for free speech and animal protection.”
“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,” ALDF Executive Director Stephen Wells said in a statement. “Today’s victory makes it clear that the government cannot protect these industries at the expense of our constitutional rights.”
However, others had very opposite reactions to this ruling.
“It was never the intent of farmers to infringe on others’ constitutional rights,” the Iowa Pork Producers Association said. “We were relying on the courts to help us protect our rights to lawfully conduct our businesses and care for our animals.”
Iowa lawmakers said the law responded to two major concerns the agriculture industry faces. In this case, it responded to facility security, and reputational harm sometimes accompanying investigative reporting.
“What we’re aiming at is stopping these groups that go out and gin up campaigns that they use to raise money by trying to give the agriculture industry a bad name,” then-state Sen. Tom Rielly said at the time.
The two opposing sides went to battle. Those opposing the law said it was an infringement on protections offered to journalists by the First Amendment. Conversely, Iowa lawmakers said the law was enacted to defend the private property rights of Iowans who own agricultural facilities.
Therefore, the question remained – is taking a job under false pretenses protected by the First Amendment?
After the hearing in January, the federal judge ruled the law was a violation of the First Amendment. In a sense, lies were being protected by the First Amendment.
“To some degree, the concept of constitutional protection for speech that is false may be disquieting,” Gritzner wrote.
Grizner continued and quoted the U.S. Supreme Court.
He said, “the Nation well knows that one of the costs of the First Amendment is that it protects the speech we detest as well as the speech we embrace.”
While activists praised the ruling, agriculturalists now fear what could come of this. However, Iowa isn’t giving up.
Iowa Fights Back
Despite the disheartening ruling, Iowa isn’t backing down without a fight. Recently, Iowa’s Attorney General, Tom Miller, filed an appeal to this ruling. He filed to have the case moved to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. Additionally, he filed a motion to have the law kept in place pending the appeal.
“Defendants respectfully submit there is substantial ground for difference of opinion, and thus a reasonable likelihood of success, as to whether Iowa’s Ag-Fraud statute restricts protected speech in violation of the First Amendment,” the filing states. “The Supreme Court has held false speech that imposes a legally cognizable harm or provides a material gain to the speaker is not protected under the First Amendment.”
Similarly, laws in other states such as Idaho and Utah have been overturned based on the First Amendment. However, challenges to the those laws in several other states are continuing.
A law in effect since 2012 was recently overturned by the federal court. As a result, animal rights activists will be allowed to enter agricultural operations under false pretenses. However, Iowa has not given up yet. Miller recently filed an appeal. While many other states are going through similar situations, it is hopeful Iowa can serve as the turning point.