Animal rights groups sue over latest Iowa farm trespass law
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — A group of animal rights and public interest groups filed a lawsuit Tuesday challenging the latest Iowa law designed to criminalize investigations into animal treatment on livestock farms.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court, alleges violations of First Amendment free speech rights. It asks the court to declare the law unconstitutional and issue an order preventing officials from enforcing it.
It is the third attempt by Republican lawmakers to outlaw farm investigations. The law signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds in June makes trespassing at a food operation an aggravated misdemeanor that carries up to two years in prison and a fine of $8,540. A second offense is a felony that carries up to five years behind bars. Those are far harsher penalties than trespassing elsewhere, a simple misdemeanor that carries up to 30 days in jail and a fine of $855.
Lawmakers say they increased the penalties for trespassing at livestock operations to protect farmers from harassment and deter intrusions that threaten the safety of the state's multibillion-dollar agriculture industry.
A law passed in 2012 was struck down as unconstitutional by a federal judge in 2019 and the state appealed that decision.
The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday upheld a portion of the judge's dismissal and continued to block the provision of the law that criminalized making a false statement in seeking a job an an animal production facility. The court, however, reversed the judge on a second provision and said the state can make it illegal for someone to obtain access to an agricultural production facility by false pretenses. An attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, which represented some of the plaintiffs in that case said they are considering appeal options.
A second law was passed in 2019 shortly after the judge's decision in the earlier law and the animal rights coalition sued which led to a judge prohibiting officials from enforcing it while a lawsuit challenging its constitutionality continues.
"By passing yet another unconstitutional Ag-Gag law, Iowa's state legislature has put on full display its willingness to trample the Constitution in an attempt to hide from the public what really goes on at factory farms," said Tyler Lobdell, Staff Attorney at Food & Water Watch, one of the groups filing the latest legal challenge.
Other groups include the Animal Legal Defense Fund, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, Bailing Out Benji and the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
The lawsuit names Reynolds, Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller and the county attorneys in Cass, Dallas and Washington counties.
Those county officials were named because they are counties with livestock facilities that the groups might investigate but "will not send investigators because they fear the investigators will be charged" under the new law.
Iowa House Democratic leader Jennifer Konfrst said its one of many examples of laws the Republican majority has passed in recent years knowing they would be challenged in court.
"It's a waste of taxpayer dollars to continue to pass laws that they know are going to court and possibly lose," she said.
Republican legislative leaders did not immediately provide a comment.
The legal challenge is the ninth lawsuit the coalition has filed in various states to challenge so-called ag-gag laws. The lawsuits have successfully struck down laws in North Carolina, Kansas, Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming. North Carolina and Kansas have appealed and decisions are pending.
A federal appeals court on Monday revived a legal challenge to a similar Arkansas law. A three-judge panel of the St. Louis-based 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower court's decision to dismiss the lawsuit filed in 2019 by the Animal Legal Defense Fund and other animal rights organizations. A federal judge last year said the groups hadn't shown they have suffered an actual injury because of the law.