The First Amendment Silences the Iowa “Ag-Gag Law”

In 2012, the crime coined “agricultural production facility fraud” was created by the Iowa Legislature.  Creation was prompted by Iowa’s seat in the national spotlight resulting from undercover investigations of industrial farms which revealed treatment of animals that shocked most viewers.  Then Governor Terry Brandstad signed the bill into law on March 2, 2012.  The law criminalized a person for willfully (a) using false pretenses to gain access to an agricultural production facility; or (b) falsifying an employment application to an agricultural production facility intending to commit an act the individual knows is not authorized by the facility owner.  The definition of agricultural production facility was broadly interpreted to encompass factory farms, puppy mills, and slaughterhouses, for example.  The law created tension between the protections granted by the First Amendment and private property rights of the facility owners.  Opponents have coined the phrase “ag-gag,” when referring to the law.  According to the Animal Legal Defense Fund, there have been no undercover investigations in Iowa since enactment in 2012.  Change may be on the horizon.

In October of 2017, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, Bailing Out Benji, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Inc., and Center for Food Safety filed a Petition in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Iowa and presented claims under the First Amendment, and the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment.  Governor Kim Reynolds, Attorney General Tom Miller, and Montgomery County Attorney Bruce Swanson were named as defendants in their official capacities.  The defendants asserted defenses of protecting biosecurity and private property rights.  After various filings, the plaintiffs’ claims asserted under the Equal Protection Clause were dismissed by the Court.  Both parties filed a motion for summary judgment, each respectively asking the Court to find there were no genuine issues to proceed to trial on and that it was entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

On Wednesday, January 9, 2019, Judge James Gritzner held the law violated the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.  Although the law put a “gag” on speech created only by false pretenses, Judge Gritzner quoted the United States Supreme Court in noting, “[t]he 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.”  Similar laws have been struck down in Idaho and Utah.

Statements released by the proponents and opponents after Judge Gritzner’s ruling provide further evidence of the tension between freedom of speech and private property rights.  According to the Animal Legal Defense Fund, “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.  Today’s victory makes it clear that the government cannot protect these industries at the expense of our constitutional rights.”  Conversely, the Iowa Pork Producers Association stated, “It was never the intent of farmers to infringe on others’ constitutional rights; but we also were relying on the courts to help us protect our rights to lawfully conduct our businesses and care for our animals.”  For now, the First Amendment has effectively silenced the “gag” put in place by the law.  Will an appeal follow and potentially change that?  Spokesman for Governor Reynolds stated options are being reviewed with the Iowa Attorney General.

This case was Animal Legal Defense Fund, et al. v. Kimberly Reynolds, Governor, et al., No. 4:17-cv-00362-JEG-HCA, 1-2 (S.D. Iowa 2019).