Government

Narrowly crafted Iowa 'ag gag' bill goes to governor

Law aims to protect farmers from those who intend harm

A frame from a 2011 undercover video shot at a corporate hog farm in Iowa and distributed by animal-rights group Mercy for Animals. It was in response to this and similar videos that the Iowa Legislature passed the state's
A frame from a 2011 undercover video shot at a corporate hog farm in Iowa and distributed by animal-rights group Mercy for Animals. It was in response to this and similar videos that the Iowa Legislature passed the state's "ag gag" law in 2012, making it illegal to conduct an undercover animal cruelty investigation at Iowa agricultural sites. On Wednesday, a federal judge ruled the law was unconstitutional, a violation of free speech. (Video screenshot)

DES MOINES — Iowa lawmakers have approved and sent to the governor an “unfortunate … but necessary” bill to protect Iowa agriculture from trespassers who intend to do physical or economic harm.

“We’re not only talking about those folks who are trying to gain access and shoot videos and use those in a disparaging way,” Rep. Jarad Klein, R-Keota, said Tuesday before the House voted 65-32 to approve Senate File 519. “We’re also talking about people that may be trying to trespass with intent to cause economic and physical financial harm.”

The bill, which would go into effect as soon as it is signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds, is timely in light of rising concerns about African swine fever that infects pork herds, according to Rep. Bruce Bearinger, D-Oelwein.

“It’s an unfortunate bill, but in this era of the high risk of bioterrorism, and the extreme need for biosecurity, and extremism, it’s an important bill to protect our agriculture”

- Rep. Bruce Bearinger, D-Oelwein

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,

“It’s an unfortunate bill, but in this era of the high risk of bioterrorism, and the extreme need for biosecurity, and extremism, it’s an important bill to protect our agriculture,” he said.

The Senate earlier in the day approved the bill, 41-8. In both chambers, nearly every “no” vote was from an urban Democrat.

Among them was Rep. Liz Bennett, D-Cedar Rapids, who said the bill “gives the middle finger to free speech, consumer protection, food safety and animal welfare.”

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“I’m a ‘hell no’ on this bill,” she said during the 14-minute debate.

“I’m a ‘hell no’ on this bill”

- Rep. Liz Bennett, D-Cedar Rapids

Redundancy and free protections were chief among the concerns raised by Senate Democrats.

Sen. Liz Mathis, D-Hiawatha, cited some passages from the federal judge’s ruling in January that struck down the Legislature’s 2012 ag-gag law. The judge ruled it impinged on free speech protections.

Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, said the legislation appears written to attack the kind of investigations that in the past have produced beneficial results.

Quirmbach noted the tobacco industry and other examples where investigations caused financial harm to major industries but also revealed information that was beneficial to the public.

“Truthful revelation may indeed cause economic harm, but quite often truthful revelation has led to the saving of lots of human lives,” Quirmbach said. “Punishing people whose truthful revelation of information causes economic harm is something we should not do. If they convey false information, then absolutely they can be sued. If they do physical harm, that’s already illegal.”

But current law “simply does not protect against someone entering property under false pretenses,” responded Sen. Ken Rozenboom, R-Oskaloosa. “I just think this (proposal) is necessary, and current protection is not adequate.”

Klein called the bill is very limited in prohibiting “false speech that is intended to cause harm.” It is necessary to protect farmers from “people who lie to get a job, whose intent is to cause harm.”

It is modeled on an Idaho law that has been upheld in federal court, he added.

“This is an extremely important bill,” he said, encouraging colleagues to vote “hell yes.”

In the House, 14 Democrats, including a handful from urban areas, supported the bill.

l Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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