A federal judge has ruled that an Iowa law used to silence animal rights activists and protect big Agriculture is unconstitutional, violating the free speech rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.
After several individuals and animal rights organizations revealed abusive and downright torturous behavior of animals on industrial farms, Iowa created the crime of “agricultural production facility fraud,” in its 2012 Agricultural-Gag (Ag-Gag) law. The legislation made it a crime to take a job at one of these facilities with the intention of committing an “unauthorized” act.
“…a pernicious attempt by animal exploitation industries to hide some of the worst forms of animal abuse…”
The idea was animal rights activists who took jobs at the facilities could be then convicted criminally not for the resultant exposé itself, but the “fraud” committed when the activist took the job under false pretenses.
James E. Gritzner, a George W. Bush appointee to the United States District Court in Iowa, ruled in favor of The Animal Legal Defense Fund, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and their partners, throwing out the law which created the crime.
Celebrating the win, a statement from the Animal Legal Defense Fund said, “Ag-Gag laws are a pernicious attempt by animal exploitation industries to hide some of the worst forms of animal abuse in the United States.” The ACLU of Iowa added that the law “has effectively silenced advocates and ensured that animal cruelty, unsafe food safety practices, environmental hazards, and inhumane working conditions go unreported for years.”
Make Her Cry
Typically, these exposé videos would be recorded by people who had gained access to the facilities by taking jobs there. Then they could use their access to capture the footage, often of disturbing scenes where animals are made to suffer needlessly. Judge Gritzner writes of one PETA investigation that:
“[E]xposed workers at a Hormel Foods supplier in Iowa ‘beating pigs with metal rods,’ ‘sticking clothespins into pigs’ eyes and faces, and a supervisor kicking a young pig in the face, abdomen, and genitals to make her move while telling the investigator, ‘You gotta beat on the b**ch. Make her cry.’”
The judge’s opinion examines the legislative intent of the law and finds that intention far from pure. Judge Gritzner quotes Iowa state senator Tom Rielly, who worked to push the bill through the state Senate, as saying at the time: “What we’re aiming at is stopping these groups that go out and gin up campaigns that they use to raise money by trying to give the agriculture industry a bad name.” Laws negatively impacting First Amendment rights to prevent reputational harms are not acceptable.
Right to Lie
Lawmakers thought the measure would survive scrutiny under the First Amendment because of the “fraud” provision. That is, the law only applied to people who took work at a facility under “false pretenses” or who did such work after making a false statement “with an intent to commit an act not authorized by the owner of the agricultural production facility, knowing that the act is not authorized.”
Judge Gritzner had none of that, stating that the right to make false statements “whether they be investigative deceptions or innocuous lies — is protected by our country’s guarantee of free speech and expression.” He applied the “strict scrutiny” test, but said that he would hold the law unconstitutional even if he applied the lower standard “intermediate scrutiny” of legal review requested by the state of Iowa.
“Intermediate scrutiny” allows a law or regulation to further an important government interest by means that are substantially related to that interest. This test for judicial review is much easier for the state to meet than “strict scrutiny,” which the animal rights groups argue should apply. Under the “strict scrutiny” test, legislation must further a “compelling governmental interest,” to be valid, and be narrowly tailored to achieve that interest. Practically speaking, when strict scrutiny is applied, the law or regulation challenged rarely is upheld.
Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller’s office is studying the ruling and will consider an appeal, according to Courthouse News. If Miller does not appeal, that is welcome news for all those who understand that protecting all speech is the only way that free speech can survive. If he does appeal, then perhaps the Supreme Court may get to weigh in and permanently quash these states’ attempts to stifle the free speech rights of Americans.