Federal Court Says Iowa's Ag Gag Law Is Unconstitutional

As farms have found themselves scrutinized for their practices, there's been a legislative desire to cover questionable actions under the protective garb of opacity. Ag lobbyists have successfully pushed for laws criminalizing the exposure of facts. As a bonus, they've also secured legislation labeling animal rights activists and others concerned about farm animal well-being as "terrorists."

The victories have been short-lived. Anyone not completely consumed by self-interest would recognize the laws violate the First Amendment by preventing fact-gathering or dissemination of observations by those who've bluffed their way onto farms precisely to uncover abusive practices. Courts are overturning these laws, but that's not stopping anyone from writing new ones just as unconstitutionally sound. Fortunately, a recent federal court decision [PDF] adds to the ammo opponents of these laws can use to bring them down. (via Courthouse News Service)

Iowa's "ag gag" law was a direct response to criticism of farm practices -- criticism driven by undercover investigations by journalists and activists posing as farm employees. State legislators had a host of bad reasons for the law -- all of them dancing around the actual reason: to prevent criticism of farm practices.

Lawmakers described the bill as being responsive to two primary concerns of the agricultural industry: facility security (both in terms of biosecurity and security of private property) and harms that accompany investigative reporting. For example, as to security, then-Representative Annette Sweeney provided: “With this bill we want to make sure everybody involved in our livestock facilities and working within in those facilities is forthright, and want to make sure our livestock is being kept safe,” and then-Senate President John “Jack” Kibbie supported an early draft of the bill because “[t]here’s viruses that can put these producers out of business, whether it’s cattle, hogs or poultry.” As to reputational harms, former Senator Tom Rielly commented on a draft version of the bill: “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.”

It's surprising the real reason is named, even if the phrase -- "harms that accompany investigative reporting" -- is polluted by spin. The rest is disingenuous gibberish. Keeping employees "forthright" was never the point. Actual non-activist employees weren't prevented from lying about animal treatment practices. And the easiest way for the ag industry to fight a negative reputation would be to end the practices that give it a "bad name." Since that clearly wasn't going to happen, captured regulators decided to poke holes in the First Amendment. The court is here to close those holes and send legislators and their favorite lobbyists back to the drawing board.

The court says that even if it buys the government's arguments for the enactment of the law, it's stated reasons (which ignore the desired side effect of preventing the public from learning about the industry producing its food) aren't enough to justify this intrusion on First Amendment rights.

However, accepting Defendants’ argument that property and biosecurity are the state’s actual interests protected by § 717A.3A, the Court is persuaded these interests are important; but they are not compelling in the First Amendment sense. Herbert, 263 F. Supp. 3d at 1211-12 (assuming, despite record evidence to the contrary, that the state’s proffered interests— protection from spread of disease; injury to animals and workers caused by unauthorized actions—were the actual reasons for enacting the statute, but finding that the harms targeted were “entirely speculative,” and therefore could not be considered compelling); Otter, 118 F. Supp. 3d at 1207-08 (finding the state’s “interest in protecting personal privacy and private property” to be important, but not compelling; furthermore, “even if the [s]tate’s interest in protecting the privacy and property of agricultural facilities was ‘compelling’ in the First Amendment sense, [the statute] [wa]s not narrowly drawn to serve those interests”).

You'd think a state government so concerned about "protecting" favored industries would have done a little more on the evidence-gathering front. Then again, maybe it did but (surprise!) couldn't find anything to justify its legislative stance. Either way, the end result is the same: the First Amendment isn't subject to legislators' fantasies.

Defendants have produced no evidence that the prohibitions of § 717A.3A are actually necessary to protect perceived harms to property and biosecurity.


Defendants have made no record as to how biosecurity is threatened by a person making a false statement to get access to, or employment in, an agricultural production facility. Nor, in the absence of any record to the contrary, will the Court assume that biological harm turns on a human vector making a false statement unrelated to such harm in order to gain access to the facility. Protecting biosecurity is therefore purely speculative and cannot constitute a compelling state interest.

Furthermore, the stated interests are already protected by laws against trespassing and possessing pathogens with the intent to harm the health of farm animals or crops. The state argued the trespassing law doesn't seem to be deterring trespassers, but the court counters this by asking why the state thinks using the First Amendment as a doormat will be a more effective deterrent to trespassing.

The court speculates there may be a way to craft a law that deters what the state says it wants to deter, as well as the things the state won't admit it wants to deter, but this ain't it chief.

To the extent that a violation of § 717A.3A can be likened to the common law breach of a duty of loyalty, to criminalize such a breach goes far beyond what is necessary to protect the state’s interests and allows for expansive prosecution.

No matter what your stated reasons are for implementing a law, if the actual target is the act of journalism -- gathering facts and reporting on observations -- you're going to run into Constitutional challenges. And if you're not honest about what you're really targeting, your law won't survive judicial examination.

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