A federal judge has struck down Iowa’s most recent attempt to enact a so-called “ag gag law” that would have criminalized undercover investigations at animal confinement facilities, finding “the state … may not single out individuals for special punishment based on their critical viewpoint of agricultural practices.”
The 2019 law was signed by Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds after a previous court decision had rejected the state’s first attempt on First Amendment grounds. In the latest decision, Chief Judge Stephanie Rose of the Southern District of Iowa said, “It is the proper province of the legislature to determine whether specific facilities — such as agricultural facilities, nuclear power plants, military bases, or other sensitive buildings — are entitled to special legal protections,” but that the First Amendment doesn’t allow those protections “to be based on a violator’s viewpoint.”
The law was not specific enough, the judge found. “The lack of narrow tailoring leads to transgressing important First Amendment values,” Rose said in her opinion. “Plaintiffs and their investigators seek to shine a light on issues such as animal abuse, food safety, and agricultural working conditions, which are all fairly in the public sphere and issues of public concern.”
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The state had argued the law “does not regulate speech and, even if it does, it is content- and viewpoint neutral,” Rose said in her opinion.
Plaintiffs in the case are the Animal Legal Defense Fund, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the Center for Food Safety, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, and Bailing Out Benji. A handful of states have ag-gag laws, including Montana and Missouri, but in most cases, court challenges have been successful in invalidating the legislation on constitutional grounds.
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