Iowa's 'Ag-Gag' Law Struck Down

By Lisa M. Schaffer, Esq. on January 11, 2019 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Ag-gag laws are intended to muzzle the voices of undercover journalists and animal rights activist looking to expose certain unethical practices in the agricultural community. Often, these journalists and activists use false pretenses in order to gain their employment, and then go rogue once inside the organization. The Iowa government wanted to criminalize this conduct, but the plaintiffs, and ultimately the judge, felt what was being criminalized was the speech, not the conduct, and therefore declared Iowa's ag-gag law unconstitutional.

The Iowa Ag-Gag Law

In 2012, Iowa implemented its ag-gag law, created to keep reporters and activist from entering livestock facilities under false pretenses to report animal abuse. A first conviction was deemed a misdemeanor, where violators could face up to one year in jail. Second offenses would be considered aggravated misdemeanors, punishable by up to two years in jail. There was a separate criminal offense for conspiring, or aiding and abetting, the underlying offense.

Beaten Pigs and Dirty Eggs in Iowa

The timing of this law came as no surprise to animal rights activists. In 2008, a People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) employee-based investigation of an Iowa farm documented pigs getting severely beaten with metal rods, and workers sticking clothespins in the pigs' eyes and faces. In 2010, a nationwide outbreak of salmonella that sickened thousands was traced back to an Iowa egg farm. Two top executives at that farm were sentences to jail for knowingly and repeatedly distributing food they knew was at risk of bacterial infection, and bribing USDA officials to keep the eggs moving towards consumer distribution.

In both instances, the illegalities were brought to light because of undercover journalists and activists. Indeed, Iowa has a checkered past of mistreating agricultural animals.

Ag-Gag Law Punishes Speech, Not Conduct

At the ag-gag law trial, numerous activist groups joined the plaintiff side, including Animal Legal Defense Fund, Center for Food Safety, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the ACLU of Iowa. Plaintiffs argued that previous atrocities would never have come to light if not for undercover workers, and if the law were to stay in effect, these "dirty" organizations would have a monopoly on all information pertaining to such issues. That, they felt, was unjust. The government, on the other hand, tried to claim that the law placed restrictions on conduct, not speech, and therefore fell outside of the purview of the First Amendment, and therefore legal.

However, U.S. District Judge James Gritzner disagreed with the defendants, saying one could not violate the statute without engaging in speech. In addition, Gritzner added, even false statements are protected by the First Amendment if they do not cause a "legally cognizable harm" or provide "material gain" to the speaker. The judge believed that undercover journalists and animal rights activists do not normally engage in either of these practices, and therefore, in effect, this law was criminalizing journalism.

If you believe there's a law in your jurisdiction that keep criminal activity hidden, contact a local civil rights attorney. An experienced lawyer may be able to organize you with like-minded people, and together you can help make a difference.

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