Iowa State Capitol

Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines

DES MOINES — Iowa’s controversial 2012 “ag gag” law was found unconstitutional by a federal court because it violates free speech rights, so the state’s agricultural interests were back at the Capitol last week with a proposal they say will not impinge on free speech while protecting farmers from people who intend to do harm.

A House Agriculture subcommittee of two pork producers and a former county agricultural extension agent signed off on House Study Bill 236, making it eligible for action later this week ahead of the Friday deadline for bills to win committee approval to be eligible for consideration by the full House.

The bill is necessary to prevent damage to “one of Iowa’s most important industries,” said Rep. Bruce Bearinger, D-Oelwein.

“It is important to recognize that dishonest access to those properties is a huge risk,” he said, referring to livestock facilities that are vulnerable to disease.

The Iowa Pork Producers Association supported the measure for that reason, too. The bill would safeguard pork producers “from those who would be deceitful in an effort to physically or economically cause harm to people or animals on our farms,” according to the association’s Drew Mogler.

He said Mercy for Animals, an international group with a mission statement to “prevent cruelty to farmed animals and promote compassionate food choices and policies” such as vegan eating, recently was advertising in Iowa for undercover investigators who agree with its principles.

“Deceitful reporting of good animal husbandry can cause economic harm to farmers,” Mogler said.

The subcommittee also heard from representatives of honey and soybean producers who shared concerns about “bad actors” who would cause harm to food production.

“I can’t imagine Coke and Pepsi not wanting the same” protection, Jill Altringer of the Iowa Soybean Association said.

However, it seemed like déjà vu to Daniel Zeno of the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa.

“We’ve done this before,” he said.

Based on the group’s reading of the bill, “while it appears to be narrower, there still is an implication on free speech,” Zeno said.

Under the bill, anyone who lies to gain employment could be guilty of a crime.

“We are criminalizing speech,” Zeno said.

Rep. Jarad Klein, R-Keota, who along with subcommittee member Rep. Ross Paustian, R-Walcott, served House colleagues tubs of bacon as their shared birthday treat Tuesday morning, said passage was necessary to ensure that the state doesn’t allow agriculture saboteurs.

“We have to emphasize that these are people who are being deceitful,” Klein said, adding “there has to be intent to cause harm.”

“We have to be diligent to make sure that people who want to cause harm, who want to lie, who want to deceive, we aren’t enabling that to happen,” he said.

The current law, which makes undercover investigations by journalists, food safety and labor advocates at slaughterhouses and factory farms illegal, is currently being appealed by the state. It was struck down in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Iowa in January.

Senior Judge James Gritzner said that when the state seeks to regulate speech, “it bears the heavy burden of showing that the prohibition satisfies constitutional scrutiny.” He ruled the state had not met that burden — and questioned the state’s rationale for justifying the law.”

That case was brought by the ACLU on behalf of several clients who said the law prevented them from documenting cruel and inhumane practices at facilities like farms, slaughterhouses and puppy mills.

Zeno urged the panel not to advance the bill “so there will not to be more litigation.”

If there is, the Iowa Attorney General will represent the state.

“We’re defending the state. We, of course, will defend the state on this statute,” said Eric Tabor of the Office of Attorney General.

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