Staff Editorials

A welcome legal challenge to a bad 'ag gag' law

Piglets weaned from sows check out their new surroundings in this October 2009 file photo.  (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Piglets weaned from sows check out their new surroundings in this October 2009 file photo. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

It’s been more than five years since we urged the Iowa Legislature to scrap a so-called “ag gag” bill, making it a crime to gain employment at a farming operation under “false pretenses” to investigate possible wrongdoing. We dubbed it a “misguided bill that would be a bad law.”

Unfortunately, the misguided bill became a bad law in 2012. If a reporter or potential whistleblower gains employment at a facility without disclosing their intentions or after making a false statement on a job application, they could be charged with “agricultural production facility fraud.” And anyone who conceals the identity of the whistleblower could be charged as an accessory after the fact.

Never mind the wrongdoing or criminality a journalist or whistleblower might find inside a facility. Forget that such a law could have a chilling effect even on employees who took a job under no false pretense if they witness problems. Lawmakers decided a potential public relations black eye for agriculture is a far more serious threat than failing to report troubling practices in an industry tasked with putting safe food on our tables.

So we welcome news this week that a coalition of groups led by the ACLU of Iowa is filing a federal court challenge seeking to overturn ag gag on constitutional grounds. Courts in Idaho and Utah already have overturned similar laws.

“Ag gag clearly is a violation of Iowans’ First Amendment rights to free speech,” said Rita Bettis, the ACLU of Iowa’s legal director, in a news release. “It has effectively silenced advocates and ensured that animal cruelty, unsafe food safety practices, environmental hazards, and inhumane working conditions go unreported for years.”

We concede some overzealous animal rights groups have used questionable tactics to fuel sensationalized depictions of common, legal farming practices. That’s a problem, but it’s a problem that could have been addressed under existing fraud and trespassing laws. Instead, lawmakers opted for overzealous, overly broad legislation targeting free speech, namely criticism of agriculture. Some legislators knew in 2012 the law was built on shaky constitutional ground.

Although we welcome a legal challenge, it’s worth noting state lawmakers could save considerable time and resources by simply, swiftly repealing ag gag. It’s been five years, but it’s never too late to scrap a bad law.

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