Iowa Appeals Ruling on Ag-Gag Law

Officials Tell Court State Likely to Succeed on Merits of Case

Todd Neeley
By  Todd Neeley , DTN Staff Reporter
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The state of Iowa is appealing a federal judge's decision to block an Iowa law to prevent undercover investigations at agricultural operations. (Photo by Pamela Smith)

OMAHA (DTN) -- The state of Iowa is appealing to a federal court to reverse an Iowa judge's move in January to throw out a state law that blocks undercover activist investigations into livestock operations.

The 2012 law, coming after at least a couple of widely publicized investigations into hog operations, made it illegal to come on a livestock facility under false pretenses, or lie on a job application to work for a livestock operation. The law was meant to effectively criminalize undercover investigations on livestock farms.

Iowa officials filed an appeal on Wednesday with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in St. Louis, Missouri. In addition, the state has asked the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa to stay any proceedings to enforce the judge's order pending the appeal.

Animal Legal Defense Fund, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, Bailing Out Benji, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Center for Food Safety filed a lawsuit challenging the law in the Southern District of Iowa.

Both sides asked the court for a summary ruling. Judge James Gritzner ruled for plaintiffs in the case, ruling that the law was too broad in scope and the right to make the kinds of false statements prohibited under the Iowa law, "whether they be investigative deceptions or innocuous lies -- is protected by our country's guarantee of free speech and expression."

In its motion for a stay, the state of Iowa said it believes it is likely to succeed on the merits of the case.

"Defendants respectfully submit there is substantial ground for difference of opinion, and thus a reasonable likelihood of success, as to whether Iowa's ag-fraud statute restricts protected speech in violation of the First Amendment," the state argued. "The Supreme Court has held false speech that imposes a legally cognizable harm or provides a material gain to the speaker is not protected under the First Amendment.

"Defendants have argued there is no First Amendment right to use false pretenses to gain access to an agricultural production facility or employment at said facility, with the intent to knowingly commit an unauthorized act."

Iowa officials argue there is court precedence to support arguments made in the current case.

"The Ninth Circuit has upheld a portion of Idaho's ag-fraud statute, which is arguably similar, although slightly narrower, than Iowa's," the motion to stay said.

"The protection of private property and biosecurity is of the upmost importance. This court acknowledged as much when it stated these interests were 'important' but 'not compelling in the First Amendment sense.' As previously argued by defendants, the protection of private property in Iowa was deemed so fundamental and important that it was enshrined in Iowa's constitution."

Iowa joined several states in adopting what opponents call "ag-gag" laws because of videos generated by such investigations showing what is perceived as abusive behavior toward animals.

Similar cases have overturned laws in Idaho and Utah in recent years, but a Wyoming law has been upheld in court. Similar cases are still working through courts in North Carolina. Gritzner pointed in his ruling to the overturning of the Idaho law and similarities with the Iowa statute.

Todd Neeley can be reached at todd.neeley@dtn.com

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(ES/BAS)

Todd Neeley