Staff Editorial

A 'bad law' fails a free speech test

A frame from a 2011 undercover video shot at an Iowa hog farm 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)
A frame from a 2011 undercover video shot at an Iowa hog farm 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)

It was clear to us nearly six years ago that Iowa lawmakers were making a big mistake in approving a so-called “ag-gag” law, which sought to level criminal charges at anyone who gained employment at an agricultural facility with the intent of covertly investigating wrongdoing. The measure was crafted to scare off undercover animal welfare activists, but it seemed certain ag-gag also would take aim at journalists, whistleblowers and anyone who aided their efforts.

We called it a “misguided bill that would be a bad law.” On Wednesday, U.S. Southern District of Iowa Senior Judge James Gritzner ruled the law amounts to an unconstitutional violation of First Amendment rights. We applaud the ruling as a victory for free speech, even when it reveals uncomfortable truths and angers powerful interests.

Gritzner ruled the state failed to meet the “heavy burden” of proving a compelling state interest in restricting such speech. That’s not surprising, considering the main motive behind ag-gag is to shield farming operations from bad publicity. Lawmakers pointed to a string of undercover videos shot by activists they contended portrayed livestock production in a falsely negative light. The videos, it seemed, were more of a concern to legislators than any wrongdoing they might uncover.

We conceded then, and now, that some groups overzealously deployed questionable tactics. But throwing a blanket of criminality over any and all such efforts to investigate irresponsible, and potentially illegal, farming practices went too far.

Livestock production is a critical industry in Iowa. But no industry, especially one connected to the food we eat, should be shielded from scrutiny by heavy-handed laws. Iowa has other, less constitutionally onerous statutes on the books that prohibit access to farming operations without the owner’s permission, Gritzner noted.

Federal judges in Utah and Idaho have struck down similar laws, with more challenges ongoing. Iowa leaders should heed these messages. We urge the incoming Legislature to resist the temptation to seek a route around this week’s ruling to create some new form of ag-gag. A misguided effort to pass such a bill will no doubt result in another bad law.

• Comments: (319) 398-8262; editorial@thegazette.com

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