In Iowa, ag-gag is reborn. What does that mean for other states?

In January, Iowa became the latest state to have its ag-gag law overturned by the courts, a victory for free speech and animal-rights advocates. But the victory was short-lived. This month the state’s legislators revived ag-gag with a new law that targets undercover investigations into livestock farms — and it comes as ag-gag supporters across the country are looking to craft laws that will survive constitutional challenges.

Iowa’s original ag-gag law, passed in 2012, was overturned by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa because a judge found that it violated the First Amendment. Legislators in the state passed a new version of the law on March 12, just one week after the text of the bill was made public. Gov. Kim Reynolds signed the bill into law two days later.

Iowa’s new law is modeled after two provisions of Idaho’s ag-gag law that survived a legal challenge in 2018. Those provisions make it illegal to use misrepresentation to gain employment or obtain records with the intent of causing harm to a farm’s “business interest” or property. This intent-to-harm element is at the center of Iowa’s law and could become an element of ag-gags in other states where the laws have been challenged.

There is “definitely going to be a trend following the Idaho decision to craft laws that fit within the provisions of that statute,” says David Matulewicz-Crowley, legal advocacy counsel for Mercy for Animals. The harm requirement of these laws is problematic, Matulewicz-Crowley says, because it could be difficult for law enforcement to interpret whether or not someone intended to harm their employer when they took a job. For instance, he says, whistleblowers who seek to reveal illegal activity at their farm job could be subject to scrutiny and even criminalized under the new Iowa law.

Ag-gags have largely been enacted in response to undercover investigations by animal-rights groups into the husbandry practices of industrial farms. Idaho’s law was passed in 2014 in response to a video that revealed workers on a dairy farm kicking and punching cows in the head, as well as other forms of abuse. Some of the laws have been so broad as to render illegal the work of journalists and citizen scientists to document the environmental effects of large-scale farming.

Critics of the Iowa law say its protection of a farm’s business interests directly targets such investigations. “[L]egitimate and newsworthy coverage of bad practices inside facilities inevitably damages a business’ reputation, which is just one way that this law tramples on protected speech,” said the ACLU of Iowa in a statement.

The biggest agriculture industry groups in Iowa supported the passage of the state’s new law. Its boosters included Monsanto, the Iowa Corn Growers Association, the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, Iowa Select Farms — the fifth-largest pork producer in the country — the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association, and the Iowa Pork Producers Association (IPPA).

More than 25 percent of the country’s hogs are slaughtered in Iowa, and the IPPA has staunchly defended the state’s ag-gag. “This law is designed to protect farmers from folks who are really driving an agenda to end meat production and meat consumption in this state and in this country,” said Drew Mogler, public policy director for the Iowa Pork Producers Association, in February.

Agriculture industry powerhouses have also donated to politicians involved in the passage of this revised ag-gag law. Debra Hansen, co-owner of Iowa Select Farms, donated $175,000 to Gov. Reynolds’ 2017 campaign. Her son, Michael, donated another $100,000. When she signed the bill into law last week, Gov. Reynolds spoke in favor of the ag-gags. “Untrained, unapproved and unwanted items or people entering farms put farmers and the economy of the state at risk,” she said. “Laws like this help further the security and safety of our farmers, our state, or our nation and our world, and I’m proud to sign it today.”

There is a longer fight ahead in Iowa between farmers and animal-rights advocates. Matulewicz-Crowley says that “there will definitely be another legal challenge” to the state’s new ag-gag.