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DES MOINES — A federal judge has struck down a 6-year-old Iowa law that barred undercover reporting and activism in agricultural operations in the state.

The law — passed in 2012 on the heels of exposes by animal welfare groups that found pigs being abused at Iowa Select in Iowa Falls and mistreatment of chicks and hens at Sparboe Farms — prohibited obtaining access to an agricultural production facility under false pretenses.

It also criminalized making false statements during the application process to an agricultural facility with the intent to commit acts not authorized by the owner. The violations were misdemeanors.

In a ruling issued Wednesday in U.S. District Court for Southern Iowa, Senior Judge James Gritzner sided with the Animal Legal Defense Fund, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, Bailing Out Benji, PETA, Center for Food Safety and the ACLU of Iowa that challenged the statute in a 2017 suit.

“Today’s decision is an important victory for free speech in Iowa, because it holds that Iowa’s ag gag law on its face is a violation of the First Amendment,” said Rita Bettis Austen, ACLU of Iowa’s legal director. “An especially grievous harm to our democracy occurs when the government uses the power of the criminal laws to target unpopular speech to protect those with power—which is exactly what this law was always about.

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

The plaintiffs argued the law violated First Amendment protections and equal protection clauses under the Fourteenth Amendment, claiming the industry was working to “to suppress any unflattering coverage of inhumane slaughterhouse practices, unsanitary factory conditions and worker abuses” through legislation, and legislators were attempting to suppress information from reaching the press by prosecuting newsgathering activities.

The Iowa Freedom of Information Council and the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism filed friend-of-the-court briefs on the matter.

Backers of the statute countered that the law protects the state’s interests of private property and bio-security.

The judge didn’t find the argument convincing.

“Defendants have made no record as to how bio-security is threatened by a person making a false statement to get access to, or employment in, an agricultural production facility. Nor, in the absence of any record to the contrary, will the court assume that biological harm turns on a human vector making a false statement unrelated to such harm in order to gain access to the facility,” Gritzner wrote in his ruling.

Named as defendants in the suit were Iowa’s governor and attorney general. The county attorney for Montgomery County was also named as a defendant because PETA was interested in conducting an employment-based undercover investigation based on a whistle-blower report of animal mistreatment at a Montgomery-based egg farm.

Federal courts similarly struck down laws in Idaho and Utah.

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