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DES MOINES — Iowa’s controversial “ag-gag” law, which makes undercover investigations by journalists, food safety and labor advocates at slaughterhouses and factory farms illegal, is unconstitutional because it violates free speech rights, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.

The “agriculture production facility fraud” measure was passed with bipartisan support in the Iowa Legislature and signed into law in 2012 by then-Gov. Terry Branstad, who said he favored it because it was “important that we protect farmers from people who are trying to illegally disrupt their operations.”

But animal welfare activists, who were part of a lawsuit filed in 2017, said the law prevented them from documenting cruel and inhumane practices at facilities like farms, slaughterhouses and puppy mills.

In his ruling, U.S. Southern District of Iowa 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.

Idaho and Utah federal judges also have struck down similar laws.

The suit was brought on behalf of several clients by the ACLU of Iowa, along with the Animal Legal Defense Fund, the Law Offices of Matthew Strugar, Public Justice and the Center for Food Safety.

Two Iowa clients involved are Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, an organization that says it focuses on factory farms to advance worker justice, and Bailing Out Benji, an organization that says it protects the welfare of dogs.

“An especially grievous harm to our democracy occurs when the government uses the power of the criminal laws to target unpopular speech to protect those with power — which is exactly what this law was always about,” said Rita Bettis Austen, ACLU of Iowa legal director, in a statement. “It has effectively silenced advocates and ensured that animal cruelty, unsafe food safety practices, environmental hazards, and inhumane working conditions go unreported for years.”

The law threatened up to a year in jail for those individuals who use undercover means or provide false identities to document or report on activities in the agricultural animal facilities.

In some circumstances, the law criminalized whistle-blowing.

The defendants — Gov. Kim Reynolds, Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller and Montgomery County Attorney Bruce Swanson — did not met the burden of proof needed to uphold the law, the judge decided.

He previously had ruled that it was a “content-based law” — one that targets speech based on its content, which is considered unconstitutional but may be justified if the state proves it was narrowly tailored to serve compelling state interests.

According to the ruling, the defendants asserted the law protects the state’s interests of private property and agriculture biosecurity.

They provided statements from lawmakers and Branstad in support of the public purposes.

But the record “makes clear” these were not the only reasons driving the law, the judge noted. Some lawmakers also wanted to stop “subversive acts” by “groups that go out and gin up campaigns … to give the agricultural industry a bad name.”

Gritzner said the defendants didn’t produce any evidence to show that prohibiting rights is necessary to protecting perceived harms to property and biosecurity.

There’s nothing in the record to show how biosecurity is threatened by a person making a false statement to get access to, or employment in, an ag production facility.

Regarding private property concerns, Gritzner said, there already is a law to prevent individuals from entering a property “without consent of an owner.”

In the years leading up to the enactment of the law, there were at least 10 undercover investigations of factory farms in Iowa, according to the ACLU. Since the law passed, there have been no investigations.

In his earlier ruling allowing the suit to go forward, Gritzner included some background on the undercover investigations, including one at an Iowa pig farm in 2008.

It showed workers beating pigs with rods and sticking clothespins into pigs’ eyes and faces, and led to charges.

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