A federal judge issued a preliminary injunction preventing officials in Iowa from enforcing a new law that would make it a crime for whistleblowers or undercover activists to take pictures or videos at meatpacking plants and livestock facilities, the Des Moines Register reports.
The injunction will stay in place while a lawsuit challenging the law, called the “agricultural production facility trespass” law and nicknamed the “ag-gag,” proceeds. The court also denied the state’s request to have the lawsuit dismissed.
The Iowa Attorney General’s office declined to comment to the Register, saying it was reviewing the judge’s order. Governor Kim Reynolds and Attorney General, Tom Miller, are defendants in the lawsuit challenging the law.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa (ACLU) filed a lawsuit in April challenging the ag-gag law, asserting that it is unconstitutional, “chills free speech and criminalizes a free press.”
“The First Amendment rights of journalists, investigators and advocates that are at stake in this case are vital to our democracy. Today’s win was an important step toward securing those rights,” Rita Bettis Austen, Iowa's ACLU legal director, told the Register.
Agriculture groups and lawmakers assert the law is necessary to protect producers from groups that would use false pretenses to harm farm operations.
The ag-gag, which a federal judge ruled in January 2019 was unconstitutional, is similar to legislation from 2012 that was also ruled unconstitutional. The state is appealing that decision, and the challenges are moving through the court system separately.
The ag-gag law makes it illegal for someone to use deception to gain access to a private facility with the intent to cause physical or economic harm or other injury to a facility’s operations, property or the people on-site.
The first offense would be classified a serious misdemeanor, and additional offenses would be aggravated misdemeanors, punishable with prison time and fees. The offense would also allow for a conspiracy charge, the Register says.
“Ag-gag laws threaten animals, food safety, workers’ rights and the environment, and federal courts have consistently ruled that they also violate the Constitution,” says Stephen Wells, executive director of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, which joined the ALCU of Iowa in challenging the law.
James Gritzner, a senior judge in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa said in his order granting the preliminary injunction that "the deprivation of First Amendment rights is a serious harm, and plaintiffs have shown that their planned undercover investigations will not proceed due to the risk of prosecution.
"By contrast, defendants have not made any persuasive record regarding the interests the statute is said to serve," Gritzner said.
Aside from the ACLU and Animal Legal Defense Fund, the Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, Bailing out Benji and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) are also challenging the ag-gag law.
Officials say the new law focuses narrowly on false speech that aims to cause harm. It is similar to part of an Idaho ag-gag law that survived a constitutional challenge, the Register notes.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit said two provisions in the Idaho law—using misrepresentation to obtain employment with the goal of causing economic or other injury and to obtain facility records—should be allowed to stand.