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Iowa Legislature Renews Attempt to Silence Agricultural Whistleblowers

Posted  March 14, 2019

Two months after a federal judge’s January 2019 decision that Iowa’s 2012 ag-gag law was unconstitutional, Iowa legislators have approved a new bill that—like its predecessor—aims to stifle would-be whistleblowers. The legislation falls under the umbrella of what opponents call ag-gag laws: statutes that criminalize photographing, videotaping, or otherwise blowing the whistle on misconduct occurring on farms or within slaughterhouses.

The Iowa bill, now headed for that state’s governor’s office, would create a new criminal offense: “agricultural production facility trespass.” Violation of the proposed law occurs when an individual uses deception to access a private agricultural facility with the intent to cause physical or economic harm or “other injury” to a facility’s operations, property or persons.

Proponents of ag-gag laws argue that farmers need to be protected from the economic and reputational harm that can—and does—result when consumers are provided an insider’s view of animal agriculture. But Iowa’s bill, like other ag-gag laws, isn’t aimed at protecting Iowa’s fast-disappearing small family farms. It’s instead carefully crafted to keep consumers in the dark about what goes on in “factory farm” facilities like CAFOs and industrial abattoirs, where past investigations have shed light on extreme filth and gut-wrenching cruelty.

Ag-gag laws generally apply regardless of what a whistleblower reveals through covertly-captured images or videos, whether it be abhorrent working conditions, animal cruelty, endangerment of the food supply, or environmental degradation. In the blunt but accurate words of Rep. Liz Bennett (D-Cedar Rapids), such laws “give the middle finger to free speech, consumer protection, food safety, and animal welfare.”

Of the twenty-eight states that have attempted to pass ag-gag laws, only nine have succeeded. Six of the laws remain in effect, while three—including Iowa’s 2012 law—have been overturned by the courts. The new bill’s 2012 predecessor was struck down because it violated the First Amendment’s free speech protections. It’s safe to say that legal challenge—likely brought by a coalition of animal rights groups, whistleblower advocates, and civil rights organizations—awaits should this new bill become law.

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