By Rod Boshart, Gazette Des Moines Bureau
DES MOINES — Animal welfare groups and the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa joined Monday to file a federal lawsuit challenging the latest version of the state’s “ag gag” law that prohibits trespassers who intend to do physical or economic harm from going into agriculture production facilities without the owner’s permission.
Backers of Senate File 519 — a revised law passed by the Legislature in March and signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds after a federal judge ruled the previous law unconstitutional — said it was need partly as a defense against the potential spread of a new African swine fever that could have catastrophic effects on animal agriculture, the U.S. food supply and Iowa’s economy if introduced at a livestock operation here.
But opponents including Rita Bettis Austen, ACLU of Iowa legal director, said the new law — which she called Ag Gag 2.0 — is unconstitutional because it violates provisions of the First Amendment designed to protect exposés, boycotts and protests of agricultural facilities.
“An especially grievous harm to our democracy occurs when the government uses the power of the criminal laws to target unpopular speech to protect those with power — which is exactly what this law is about,” Bettis Austen said in a statement.
SF File 519 created a new crime — “agricultural production facility trespass” — and made it illegal for a person to gain access to an agricultural production facility through deception if the person intends to cause “economic harm or other injury” of the facility.
Bettis Austen said deception is defined broadly to include both lies and omissions, and there is no definition or limitation on what “other injury” includes. She said someone convicted under the law would face a year in jail and an $1,800 fine, with the punishment growing if that person is convicted a second time.
The law’s supporters say it was modeled after an Idaho law that has been upheld in federal court, but Bettis Austen challenged that contention saying the free-speech provision does not pass muster.
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Sen. Dan Zumbach, R-Ryan, said the law is needed in this era of bioterrorism and fears of diseases spreading.
“It would take so little for someone to gain access and just ruin our livestock herds,” said Zumbach. “It could devastate our economy beyond description.”
In China, the swine herd is down 6 million head from a year ago as a result of African swine fever. The disease is present in the European Union and Vietnam has reported 330 outbreaks in less than three weeks, according to agricultural news services.
“We feel that our language is appropriate. The bill is all about preventing bad people from doing bad things and I’ll stand on that ground all day long,” Zumbach said.
In a statement, Reynolds also cited the need for biosecurity.
“I am committed to protecting Iowa farmers and ensuring the safety and security of their livestock,” she said.
Sen. Ken Rozenboom, R-Oskaloosa, said drafters were “very careful” to model the Iowa law after others that have withstood court scrutiny.
“I find it interesting that they’re defending the right to misrepresent and to lie, which I guess you can argue is protected under the First Amendment,” he said, “but if that’s how we have to go about things that’s pretty sad to me.”
Bettis Austen noted that violations like trespassing already are covered by Iowa law. The new law “has a chilling effect on journalists, advocates, and others in exposing problematic worker conditions, health and safety violations, and animal cruelty inside agricultural facilities,” she contended.
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The plaintiffs — who also challenged the earlier law — are the Animal Legal Defense Fund, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the Center for Food Safety, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and Bailing Out Benji.
Mindi Callison, executive director of the Bailing out Benji organization, said she was “deeply saddened” the coalition had to return to court to protect the right “to do our work to protect puppies and dogs.”
“Now more than ever it is important to give a voice to those that have none and make sure that commercial dog breeding facilities are complying with the laws. Passing this law to protect agricultural facilities at all costs is irresponsible,” she told a news conference Monday.
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