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Neighbors Growing Together | Sep 20, 2018

Coalition challenges Iowa ‘ag gag’ law

By James Q. Lynch, The Gazette | Oct 12, 2017

A coalition of public interest groups has filed a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the Iowa’s so-called “ag gag” law that criminalizes undercover investigative efforts to expose poor conditions for workers, food safety violations, environmental harm and animal cruelty in agricultural facilities.

The lawsuit asks, among other things, the federal court to declare that Iowa’s ag gag law is a violation of the U.S. Constitution, strike it down and block the state from enforcing it.

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. Among their clients are Bailing Out Benji, an Iowa nonprofit concerned about puppy mills, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, the national Animal Legal Defense Fund, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the National Center for Food Safety.

The suit names Gov. Kim Reynolds, Attorney General Tom Miller and Montgomery County Attorney Bruce Swanson as defendants.

A spokeswoman for the Reynolds said the governor’s office had not seen the lawsuit. Spokesmen for the attorney general and the Iowa ag secretary also declined to comment.

When the law was passed, legislative leaders said it might be unconstitutional and stated that they would let the courts decide.

The law makes it a misdemeanor offense, punishable by up to a year in jail, to make a false statement in connection with obtaining a job at such an animal facilities. 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 criminalized access to the facilities by false pretenses and publication of the information found by those means, even if there was no harm or injury to the facility investigated.

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

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 none.

In Idaho and Utah, similar laws have been struck down as unconstitutional.

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