Federal court ruling allows lawsuit challenging constitutionality of "ag gag" law to move forward

DES MOINES — A federal judge on Tuesday denied the state’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Iowa’s “ag-gag” law, which makes undercover investigations at slaughterhouses, puppy mills and factory farms illegal.

This ruling allows the lawsuit to move forward. It was filed last October by national and Iowa public interest and advocacy groups and journalists, including the ACLU of Iowa, Animal Legal Defense Fund, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, Bailing out Benji, Center for Food Safety and Public Justice.

Rita Bettis, ACLU of Iowa legal director, said in a statement that this allows the coalition to continue to challenge the law as a violation of free speech.

“Ag gag clearly is a violation of Iowan’s First Amendment rights to free speech,” Bettis said in the statement. “It has effectively silenced advocates and ensured that animal cruelty, unsafe food safety practices, environmental hazards, and inhumane working conditions go unreported for years. Its time has finally come to be stricken from state law.”

State and county officials asked the courts to dismiss the suit, claiming the coalition or advocacy groups didn't have standing to do so and hadn't made a case that constitutional rights were being violated.

The central objective of the ag gag law is to prevent whistleblowers from collecting information about these facilities and distributing information to the public, the advocacy groups contend. The animal agriculture industry lobbies to pass these laws in order to hide cruel practices and violations of laws designed to protect animals, employees and consumers, according to the opponents.  

In the years leading up to the enactment of the law in 2012, there were at least 10 undercover investigations of factory farms in Iowa, according to the ACLU. Since the law passed, there have been no investigations.

U.S. District Senior Judge James Gritzner of the Southern District of Iowa, in his ruling, includes some background on undercover investigations, including one at an Iowa pig farm in 2008, which showed workers were beating pigs with rods and sticking clothespins into pigs’ eyes and faces, and led to criminal charges being filed against multiple employees.

Gritzner noted in the ruling that because most of these facilities aren’t open to the public, the investigators would gain access by getting a job at the slaughterhouse or other facility, so they could document the activities, such as animal cruelty, unsanitary conditions, pollution, sexual misconduct or violations of labor law, by using hidden recording equipment. 

The ag gag law — agricultural production facility fraud — makes it a misdemeanor offense, punishable by up to one year in jail, to make a false statement in connection with obtaining a job at such a facility. It also penalizes “obtaining access” to an agricultural production facility by “false pretenses.”

The advocacy groups claim in the suit that the 2012 law was enacted in response to an investigation conducted in 2011 at a pork plant in Kamrar that generated news coverage of pigs and piglets being abuse. Legislators and lobbyists supported imposing a law to protect agricultural interests and make producers “feel more comfortable,” the groups claim. 

The two Iowa groups involved in the lawsuit are Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, an organization that focuses on factory farms to advance worker justice, and Bailing Out Benji, a nonprofit organization that protects the welfare of dogs and puppies.

A likely trial date would be sometime next year. l Comments: (319) 398-8318;