Iowa lawmakers push new ag-gag bill

DES MOINES — Just two months after a federal court judge struck down an Iowa law meant to discourage investigations of animal abuse on farms, lawmakers are pushing another so-called ag-gag measure that opponents say would likely land the state in court again.

Civil rights and animal welfare groups expressed surprise that Iowa Republican lawmakers would try to pass another law and potentially invite more lawsuits even as the state appeals a ruling regarding the current law. Legal bills for that case have likely already cost taxpayers more than $200,000 and continue to mount as the state appeals the case to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The new bill would create a trespass charge for those who use deception to gain access to a farm to cause physical or economic harm, with a penalty of up to a year in jail. It also allows for a conspiracy charge that carries a similar penalty.

The bill has the support of the Iowa Association of Business and Industry, Iowa Corn Growers Association and the Iowa Pork Producers Association.

Sen. Ken Rozenboom, the Republican who will manage the bill on the Senate floor, said this measure is more narrowly focused than the 2012 law struck down by the court. That law was approved following high-profile undercover investigations by animal welfare groups who videotaped practices they claimed were abusive toward animals and then publicized the images.

Rozenboom, a hog producer from Oskaloosa, said the new bill more clearly states the intention of perpetrators is to use deception to harm the farming operation.

Lawmakers said they studied Judge James Gritzner’s Jan. 9 ruling and drafted this legislation to make it similar to laws in other states that have been upheld by courts.

“They worked very hard to make sure they crafted a bill that at least in some other states have passed muster in their courts,” said House Speaker Linda Upmeyer. “We tried to stay very focused on biosecurity and keep it very tightly reined in so that it would withstand a court inspection.”

Rozenboom said producers are concerned about animal diseases being introduced to farms by an undercover investigator, and Iowa needs to have a way to discourage them.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, which helped represent animal welfare groups in the lawsuit, is lobbying against the new bill, arguing it also violates constitutional free speech protections.

“It has not passed the House or the Senate and we will continue to lobby the Legislature hard to make them understand these concerns. If it were to pass, the governor were to sign it, we’ll figure out next steps,” said Daniel Zeno, the group’s policy director and lobbyist.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund, one of the groups that sued the state over the 2012 law and has fought similar laws in several farm states, criticized Iowa lawmakers for pushing forward with another bill.

“This statute is unconstitutional and we’ve done five of these suits and we’re prepared to do a sixth,” said Matthew Liebman, the group’s director of litigation. “We’d much rather this doesn’t pass and we could save our resources for other cases that protect animals but these things are a true threat to public information and animal welfare.”

The group points out state taxpayers have had to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars defending the laws. Utah was ordered to pay $349,000 in plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fees and costs in addition to the state’s own lawyer fees, and the case in Idaho cost $260,000 in plaintiff fees.

Documents in the Iowa lawsuit show attorneys for the animal rights groups are seeking just over $200,000 for their fees, which don’t include the state’s own litigation costs and the cost of future appeals. The judge hasn’t yet ruled on whether to approve the amount sought.

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