A federal judge in Iowa has deemed the state's "ag-gag" law unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds, handing a victory to a coalition of environmental, community advocacy, and animal rights groups.

“Iowa is such a central player in the animal agriculture industry, we think this is the most significant ag-gag victory to date,” said Matthew Liebman, attorney at the Animal Legal Defense Fund, which also has led coalitions in lawsuits that toppled similar laws in Idaho and Utah.

Signed in 2012, the Agricultural Production Facility Fraud Act banned undercover investigations in commercial agriculture facilities and operations. But Liebman said undercover investigations are the main way for consumers to find out what is happening at farm operations.

Iowa led the nation in hog production with 23.6 million pigs as of Sept. 1, 2018. National Pork Producers Council spokesperson Dave Warner said the ruling doesn’t help producers.

“Farmers more than anyone care about the well-being of their animals," Warner said, asserting that animal abuse is "not something that is rampant in animal agriculture.” He also said producers should be “on the lookout” for activists trying to gain employment to expose their operation in a negative way.

The Iowa law states if a person lies trying to gain access to an agriculture production facility or makes a false statement on a job application, they would face a "serious misdemeanor."

“Even though we might find it repulsive to protect speech we hate, that is what the First Amendment does,” Kristine Tidgren, director of the Center for Agricultural Law & Taxation at Iowa State University, said. “The only time speech is not constitutionally protected is if there is legally cognizable harm, and in this case the court found there wasn’t.”

Tidgren also said the "groundwork" for Wednesday's ruling was laid in February when the court "ruled this was a content-based regulation" and denied the state's motion to dismiss.

The state defended the law by saying it was necessary for "biosecurity," but U.S. District Judge James Gritzner said in his opinion that biosecurity interests "are not compelling in the First Amendment sense.” 

Litigation against North Carolina’s ag-gag law is ongoing.

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