For the second time in less than a year, a federal court has halted enforcement of an Iowa law that backers say is needed to protect farms from deceptive trespassers but critics say stifles animal welfare advocates from exposing abuses.
U.S. District Judge James Gritzner issued a preliminary injunction to allow animal-rights activists, public-interest groups and civil libertarians to proceed with a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Senate File 519 — more commonly known as Iowa’s ag-gag rule.
In January 2019, a federal judge stuck down as unconstitutional Iowa’s original ag-gag law, which was passed in 2012 with bipartisan support.
Responding quickly, the Legislature approved and Gov. Kim Reynolds signed the revised SF 519 measure last March.
But the revision, too, quickly brought a challenge in federal court.
“It’s a sad day for America,” state Sen. Annette Sweeney, R-Alden, vice chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said last month after the injunction was issued.
One of the backers of the revised law, she had argued the statute was needed partly as a defense against the potential spread of a new African swine fever that could have had catastrophic effects on animal agriculture, the U.S. food supply and Iowa’s economy if it were introduced at a livestock operation here.
Animal welfare groups and the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa cheered Monday’s development as a victory in their effort to strike down a statute they say is designed to silence whistleblowers and undercover activists by punishing them for recording or taking photos inside factory farms, slaughterhouses and puppy mills.
“We warned Iowa legislators that Iowa’s Ag Gag law would trample on free speech in our state, and violate the Constitution,” said Rita Bettis Austen, legal director for the ACLU of Iowa. “The First Amendment rights of journalists, investigators and advocates that are at stake in this case are vital to our democracy.”
The 42-page ruling in the U.S. Southern District of Iowa granted a preliminary injunction, preventing the state from enforcing SF 519 while the lawsuit to permanently block it proceeds.
The court also denied the state’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit.
SF 519 created a new crime — “agricultural production facility trespass” — and made it illegal for a person to gain access to an agricultural production facility through deception if the person intends to cause “economic harm or other injury” to the “business interest” of the facility.
Since someone who finds and makes public any violations of food safety protocols, environmental protections, workers’ rights or animal welfare laws can damage a business’ reputation, opponents say the law unconstitutionally stifles free speech by violating provisions of the First Amendment designed to protect exposés, boycotts and protests of agricultural facilities.
State Sen. Ken Rozenboom, R-Oskaloosa, said drafters were “very careful” to model the revised Iowa law after others that have withstood court scrutiny.
Rozenboom said he was “extremely disappointed” with Monday’s development.
“I think that we in the Legislature are the ones that make the laws. I don’t think judges do that, so I’m disappointed,” said Rozenboom, who noted he and several relatives were victims of an attempt by activists last May who “came to me lying through their teeth, trying to get access to my building” when he raises hogs.
“I’m not ready to make any projections of what I’ll do if the courts would rule this unconstitutional,” he said, “but I’m personally very disgusted that we can’t protect honest, hard-working Iowans but we’ll protect criminals and people that lie for a living.”
In granting the preliminary injunction, the court examined several prongs of a test to see if one were warranted. One of those tests — the public interest — is key to the plaintiffs’ argument.
“Although this court seriously considers the public’s interest in seeing the enforcement of criminal laws, defendants have done little to show that (SF 519) responds to ongoing issues of public concern unrelated to the suppression of free speech.” Gritzner wrote. “By contrast, the public benefits from people and organizations exercising First Amendment rights and educating the public about important issues relating to animal abuse and safety at agricultural production facilities.”