Undercover investigations in 2011 revealed inhumane practices at two Iowa factory hog farms, smashing piglets onto a concrete flood and beating them with metal rods.
Another facility burned beaks off baby chicks and left dead birds to rot in cages with live ones.
The investigation of livestock at Iowa Select Farms and a Hormel Foods supplier (other suppliers in Minnesota and Oklahoma also were found to engage in similar practices) and birds at Sparboe Farms (the Iowa facility was one of eight examined in three states) led to national media attention, a public outcry and companies cutting ties with the businesses.
It also prompted the Iowa Legislature to act a year later — not to ensure better conditions, but to thwart investigations.
An “Ag Gag Law” (aka the Agricultural Production Facility Fraud Act) made it a crime to go undercover at agricultural-related business. It pertained to conditions involving labor, animal welfare (including puppy mills), food safety and environmental hazards.
After that law was found unconstitutional in January, the Legislature rushed to pass its successor last week with the backing of farm organizations and some business counterparts.
Republicans lawmakers — with some Democratic support — incorporated parts of an Idaho statute left intact last year by the liberal 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The new law would result in a serious misdemeanor for a first offense and an aggravated misdemeanor for subsequent offenses, punishable by prison time and fees. A conspiracy charge also is possible.
James Gritzner, senior judge of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa, invalidated the earlier law, ruling First Amendment concerns trumped lying to get a job.
“To some degree, the concept of constitutional protection for speech that is false may be disquieting,” he wrote, while citing a U.S. Supreme Court precedent that “the Nation well knows that one of the costs of the First Amendment is that it protects the speech we detest as well as the speech we embrace.”
He added that it protects false statements whether “investigative deceptions or innocuous lies.”
Although that bill and its latest incarnation were framed as improving biosecurity — diseases supposedly transmitted by trespass onto factory farms — Gritzner threw that contention under the bus.
“Defendants have made no record as to how biosecurity is threatened by a person making a false statement to get access to, or employment in, an agricultural production facility,” he wrote.
His ruling was consistent with decisions by other federal courts overturning similar state ag gag laws. But a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in 2018 buoyed proponents.
It struck down sections of an Idaho law that “criminalized innocent behavior” as “staggeringly over-broad … in large part, targeted at speech and investigative journalists,” as well as a provision banning recordings of a facility’s operations.
But it upheld sections regarding criminal misrepresentation to secure records or employment with the intent to cause harm.
“Matters related to food safety and animal cruelty are of significant public importance,” it wrote. “However, the First Amendment right to gather news within legal bounds does not exempt journalists from laws of general applicability.”
Undercover operations pertaining to the agricultural industry — by the media, workers’ advocates and animal rights activists — date back to reporter Upton Sinclair, who had a brief stint as a Courier reporter. “The Jungle,” his 1906 book about the meatpacking industry, prompted food safety laws.
However, a 2013 U.S. Department of Agriculture report about its 2008-11 inspections of pigs (about 110 million processed annually) at 616 facilities revealed lax enforcement. Despite 45,000 violations, including fecal matter on carcasses, operations were suspended in only 28 instances.
We can understand the paranoia in the agricultural industry — even among better operations — that exists with suspicions a prospective employee is doing the bidding of the media or an animal rights group.
But this renewed attempt to muzzle efforts related to consumer safety and the treatment of animals — whether occurring on a farm, processing facility or puppy mill — is an ill-conceived precedent to subvert negative
Whether it’s Upton Sinclair, the 1977 Mirage Tavern caper in Chicago revealing payoffs to inspectors or Mother Jones’ 2016 probe of private prison abuses in Louisiana, subterfuge may be necessary to document abuses.
Singling out the entire agricultural-related industry — from farms to processors to puppy mills — provides a protection other sectors may soon crave from legislators who put protections for businesses before the public interest.
We agree with Rep. Liz Bennett, D-Cedar Rapids, who raised concerns the ag lag law puts all whistleblowers in the agriculture industry at risk.
“This bill,” she said, “gives the middle finger to free speech, consumer protection, food safety and animal welfare.”