DES MOINES – A federal court found an Iowa ban on undercover investigations at farms and other agricultural facilities violated the First Amendment.

In a statement, the Iowa Pork Producers Association said, “The ag-fraud law passed in 2012 was meant to provide meaningful protection to farmers from those who would use false pretenses to do harm to the farmers’ reputation and to their farm animals. We’re disappointed that the court did not agree with the way the law was written.

“It was never the intent of farmers to infringe on others’ constitutional rights; but we also were relying on the courts to help us protect our rights to lawfully conduct our businesses and care for our animals.”

The Iowa legislature passed the so-called “ag-gag” law in 2012 and then-Gov. Terry Branstad signed it into law. Non-profit animal welfare groups and the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa filed a court challenge to the law in 2017.

“Iowa created the crime of ‘agricultural production facility fraud…’ following undercover investigations of animal cruelty at agricultural facilities in Iowa,” Judge James Gritzner of the US District Court for the Southern District of Iowa wrote in his ruling. He noted that in 2011, Iowa Select Farms, a pork producer, and Sparboe Farms, which supplies eggs, were targets of such investigations that resulted in “…critical national attention to Iowa’s agricultural industry.”

In response, Iowa lawmakers created legislation to address security and biosecurity at agricultural facilities and reputational harm.

Under the law, a person can be found guilty of agricultural production facility fraud by obtaining access to an agricultural production facility by false pretenses and/or knowingly making a false statement as part of an application or agreement of employment at an agricultural production facility.

A conviction on a first offense is punishable up to a year in jail and a fine. A second or multiple convictions would be treated as felonies, punishable with up to five years imprisonment and a potential fine of up to $7,500.

“The law has the effect of criminalizing undercover investigations of certain agricultural facilities,” Gritzner wrote, “including those mentioned above, and those of interest to the general public, such as puppy mills.”

The plaintiffs in the case have argued that the law violates First Amendment protections because it is a content and viewpoint-based speech restriction and it is “overbroad.” Defendants argued that the law regulates conduct.

The court ruled that the defendants had no evidence that the restrictions in Iowa’s ban on undercover investigations are actually to protect private property and biosecurity.

“Defendants have made no record as to how biosecurity is threatened by a person making a false statement to get access to, or employment in, an agricultural production facility,” Gritzner wrote. “Nor, in the absence of any record to the contrary, will the Court assume that biological harm turns on a human vector making a false statement unrelated to such harm in order to gain access to the facility. Protecting biosecurity is therefore purely speculative and cannot constitute a compelling state interest.”

Additionally, existing language in Iowa state law already protects private property and addresses property owners’ concerns about trespassing.

“As to private property and trespass concerns, an already existing section…of the Iowa Code provides that persons ‘shall not, without the consent of the owner’ do various acts, including entering the facility to disrupt or otherwise harm the operation.”