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A 2020 Iowa law that provides stiffer penalties for trespassing at livestock facilities does not infringe the First Amendment rights of animal-rights activists, a state district judge has ruled.
The law was adopted in the wake of successful legal challenges to previous “ag gag” laws to dissuade activists from recording livestock operations. It does not contain a speech component that put the other laws at risk.
The new law “does not discriminate on the basis of the viewpoint of the offender,” wrote District Judge Derek Johnson when he denied an activist’s motion to dismiss a trespassing charge for being unconstitutional. “A person who trespasses on a food operation to abuse an animal is treated the same as a person who trespasses on a food operation to rescue one.”
However, the judge did later dismiss the charge against Matthew Johnson, 35, of Berkeley, Calif, last Wednesday — along with charges of burglary and electronic eavesdropping — at the request of the prosecutor.
Johnson, affiliated with the Direct Action Everywhere animal rights group, was arrested for going into a hog confinement in north-central Iowa in May 2020 to place a video camera and audio recorder inside. He also took a piglet from the facility.
He initially faced three trespassing charges under an earlier “ag gag” law for the incursion and two other instances that month in which the facility’s video surveillance recorded him there.
Those agricultural production facility trespassing charges were dismissed a short time later — a federal judge had issued a hold on enforcement of the law, pending a legal challenge that has yet to conclude.
Johnson was charged under the more-recent trespassing law last year after video surveillance allegedly recorded him on the property again last February.
Johnson’s attorneys argued that the lawmakers who created the new trespassing law intended to discriminate against animal-rights advocates, court records show. Judge Johnson agreed that the law “will likely affect animal rights advocates more than it will others,” but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is discriminatory, he wrote.
The law has a potential penalty of up to two years in prison for first offenses, and subsequent offenses can be charged as felonies. Typical trespassing charges are simple misdemeanors punishable by up to 30 days in jail.
Previous iterations of ag gag laws focused on people gaining access to livestock facilities under “false pretenses” or with deception with the intent to harm the operation.
This article first appeared in the Iowa Capital Dispatch.