I do solemnly swear that I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of Iowa, and that I will faithfully and impartially, to the best of my ability, discharge all the duties of the office in Iowa Legislature.
- Iowa's oath of office
Iowa lawmakers knew they were flogging their oath of office in 2012, when they criminalized filming on farms. Then-Gov. Terry Branstad was fully aware that he was probably stomping on the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution when he signed the colloquially named "Ag Gag" into law.
None of that mattered, though. Serving special interests -- in this case, industrial farms -- trumped basic respect for constitutional principles. And, now, that disdain for free speech could be exposed for the rank patronage it was.
Animal rights and free speech activists this past week filed suit in federal court challenging the 2012 law that criminalized filming mistreatment of livestock on factory farms. The law went so far as to require local courts to read employees' minds. It's now a misdemeanor to seek employment on a farm "under false pretenses." That, of course, assumes a would-be filmmaker sought the job expressly to out animal abuse. That's definitely true in some cases. It's also entirely possible that a new employee could be downright horrified by he or she saw and decided to speak out.
Either way, it doesn't much matter. Neither instance negates the First Amendment.
Since its inception, this absurd handout to special interests touts a dismal record in the courts. Just this year, federal courts in Utah, Idaho and Wyoming have ruled AG Gags in those states violate First Amendment rights. In Utah, Judge Robert Shelby called bull on the state's claim that its Ag Gag was about protecting animal welfare. One Utah legislators made Shelby's job easy, proudly expressing on the chamber floor that the bill's true purpose was to target "vegetarian people that [are] trying to kill the animal industry." In Wyoming, 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower courts ruling and, last month, declared Ag Gag an affront to the First Amendment. The simple act of trespassing, itself a violation, does not nullify one's right to free speech and expression, the appellate panel concluded.
Ag Gag has always been an attempt to cover for bad actors in industrial farming. It's rise in states throughout the country was a direct result of prosecutions for animal abuse that only happened because animal rights groups did, indeed, plant people in order to gain evidence. In many cases, they found it.
Lawmakers admitted as much in 2012 when they debated Ag Gag. They acknowledged that the law was probably unconstitutional. And still, they pounded through a clear violation of the U.S. Constitution. Let the courts figure it out, they said.
Such an approach was a shameful, cowardly shirking of duty from lawmakers more interested in covering for special interests than the republic's founding principles.
Iowa's Ag Gag doesn't exist in a vacuum. It's but an example of the willingness of state lawmakers to attack the rights of those with whom they disagree. Such thinking is not only incredibly dangerous. It displays nothing short of utter contempt for the very concept of universal rights. Take, for instance, state Rep. Bobby Kaufmann's ridiculous attempt to criminalize political protest, dubbed the "Suck it up, buttercup" bill. Kaufmann's total lack of respect for dissenting views have no place in a free and open society. Kaufmann, a Republican, was more interested in scoring points with his base -- guilty of the same emotional and intellectual weakness as the "buttercups" he so despises -- than upholding his duty.
One mustn't agree with someone to staunchly defend his or her rights. In fact, that concept is the very legs on which U.S. governance stands.
But, in 2012, lawmakers in Iowa opted to service their paymasters. And they were willing to reject their oaths to do it.