Court Puts Iowa Ag Trespass Law on Hold

Judge Says Public Has Interest in Animal Safety in Facilities

Todd Neeley
By  Todd Neeley , DTN Environmental Editor
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Iowa joined several states in adopting what opponents call "ag-gag" laws because of videos generated by such investigations showing what is perceived by some as abusive behavior toward animals. (DTN file photo)

OMAHA (DTN) -- The state of Iowa cannot enforce a new ag trespass law signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds last March, after a federal judge granted a preliminary injunction this week in a lawsuit brought against the law by animal rights groups.

The order issued Monday in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa in Des Moines is the latest in a series of legal defeats for the state in its attempts to stop undercover investigations at agriculture facilities.

Animal rights groups filed the lawsuit on April 22, 2019, to stop Iowa's new law. Reynolds signed the law just months after a federal court ruled the state's previous ag fraud law was unconstitutional.

"The public interest also weighs in favor of granting a preliminary injunction," the court said in its order on Monday.

"Although this court seriously considers the public's interest in seeing the enforcement of criminal laws, defendants have done little to show that (the law) responds to ongoing issues of public concern unrelated to the suppression of free speech," the court said in its ruling. "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. The public interest weighs in favor of granting a preliminary injunction."

The court has scheduled a hearing on the case for Dec. 23, 2019.

In January 2019, the same court ruled the 2012 law was a violation of free speech. The groups, led by the Animal Legal Defense Fund, filed the new lawsuit in the same court.

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

In the new lawsuit, the animal rights groups compared the new law with the previous law, calling them "substantially similar" and outlining how the new law is overbroad. Further, the groups provided details of planned investigations into agriculture operations that would be thwarted by the new law.

The new law prohibits what it calls "agricultural production facility trespass." It makes it illegal for a person to gain access to an ag facility through deception if the intent is to cause an "injury" to the "business interest" of the facility.

The 2012 law used similar language as the new law, prohibiting what it called "agricultural production facility fraud." That was defined as obtaining access to an ag facility through false pretenses and making false statements or representations on applications for employment with ag facilities.

The new law also prohibits access to an ag facility by using deception "on a matter that would reasonably result in a denial of access to an agricultural production facility that is not open to the public." The new law was designed, essentially, to prevent "economic harm" or "other injury" to the facilities, equipment, employees and even customers.

The animal rights groups who file the lawsuit have alleged the new law also impedes on the free speech of other groups, including members of labor unions, and has put a chill on potential future undercover investigations.

The groups said they have identified Iowa ag facilities where they would like to conduct "undercover, employment-based investigations, but it has not pursued such investigations due to its reasonable fear of prosecution" under the new law.

Iowa joined several states in adopting what opponents call "ag-gag" laws because of videos generated by such investigations showing what is perceived by some 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 their way through courts in North Carolina.

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Todd Neeley

Todd Neeley
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