Iowa Again Loses Legal Fight To Save 'Ag Gag' Law
An Iowa federal judge on Monday ruled that a state law aimed at preventing animal rights activists from filming farming practices violates the First Amendment's free speech protections.
The law, which forbids the use of "deception" to either gain access to an agricultural facility or gain employment at one, runs afoul of the Constitution because it discriminates against a particular viewpoint as opposed to targeting a general subject matter, Chief U.S. District Judge Stephanie Rose said in an order granting the Animal Legal Defense Fund's motion for summary judgment.
Judge Rose, of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa, asked the animal welfare group and its co-plaintiffs to tell her exactly what they want the scope of an injunction she might issue to be.
Iowa's Republican governor, Kimberly Reynolds, signed what the plaintiffs call the "ag gag" bill into law in 2019. The law replaces an earlier version that was found in previous litigation also to violate the First Amendment, although the Eighth Circuit partially restored it. But the latest version didn't cure the defects of the first, Judge Rose said.
The judge rejected the state's argument that the plaintiffs, in their lawsuit challenging the new version of the law, cherry-picked comments from Iowa legislators and ignored others that would have shown that the law was more about the need to "protect private property and biosecurity at agricultural facilities."
The law "does not prohibit all deceptive trespassers, it only imposes liability based on the 'intent' of the trespasser," Judge Rose said. "A trespasser intending no harm, or intending to 'laud' a facility, is not punished. But a trespasser intending 'to cause physical or economic harm' can be punished. In other words, the statute considers the viewpoint of the trespasser when deciding whether to criminalize the conduct in question through its intent requirement."
She said this violates the U.S. Supreme Court's 1992 holding in R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, which established that certain categories of unprotected speech may be regulated, but only under specific conditions, and that regulation that discriminates against particular viewpoints is not permissible.
The judge said the government can certainly protect an individual's private property rights, including their "right to exclude."
"However, the intent element of [the law] does not concern the same legally cognizable harm caused by trespass recognized by the Eighth Circuit," Judge Rose said. "The state of Iowa may not single out individuals for special punishment based on their critical viewpoint of agricultural practices, which they have sought to do" with the law.
Ashlee Kieler, a spokeswoman for Iowa Attorney General Thomas Miller, on Tuesday said his office was reviewing the ruling and determining its next steps.
Stephen Wells, executive director of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, praised the ruling on Tuesday.
"It is incomprehensible that Iowa legislators continue to waste Iowans' taxpayer dollars to pass and defend unconstitutional laws that suppress free speech simply to protect their own financial interests," Wells said in a statement. "We hope this ruling sends a clear message that the Iowa legislature should cease its efforts to pass unconstitutional 'ag gag' laws."
The Animal Legal Defense Fund, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the other animal welfare groups are represented by Matthew Stuart of the Law Office of Matthew Strugar, Rita Bettis Austen of the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa Foundation, Cristina Stella of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, Alan Chen and Justin Marceau of the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and David S. Muraskin of Public Justice PC.
Iowa is represented by Attorney General Thomas J. Miller, Jeffrey S. Thompson and Jacob J. Larson of the Iowa Attorney General's Office.
The case is Animal Legal Defense Fund et al. v. Kimberly K. Reynolds et al., number 4:19-cv-00124 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa.