DES MOINES, Iowa — Animal rights groups filed a federal lawsuit Monday challenging a new Iowa law that makes it a trespass crime to conduct undercover investigations at livestock farms, a measure the Legislature approved just weeks after a federal judge struck down a similar law.
The latest bill was approved by the Senate and House on March 12 and signed into law by Gov. Kim Reynolds two days later. It creates 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.
Iowa lawmakers passed the new law just two months after a federal judge struck down a law they passed in 2012 that the court concluded violated free-speech rights. That law made it a fraud crime to lie to get a job at a farm to do undercover investigations. The ruling is on appeal to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The latest lawsuit filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Des Moines claims the new law, which became effective the day Reynolds signed it, violates constitutional free speech and due process rights and is unconstitutionally vague and overly broad.
The Animal Legal Defense Fund, Iowa Citizens For Community Improvement, Bailing Out Benji, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and Center for Food Safety ask a judge to prevent the state from enforcing the law and to strike it down as unconstitutional. The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa is providing legal assistance in the case.
The lawsuit names Reynolds, Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller and the county prosecutor in Montgomery County, the site of an egg farm where PETA would conduct an undercover investigation in response to a 2017 whistleblower complaint.
"It's important for Iowans because these are core and fundamental free speech rights," said ACLU Iowa attorney Rita Bettis Austen. "It's also important for Iowans because the actual violations that are documented through these undercover efforts, whether conditions inside puppy mills or abusive violations of labor rights for the least powerful Iowa workers who are in these Iowa ag facilities, simply wouldn't get covered. They wouldn't even be known except for these undercover investigative methods."
Sen. Ken Rozenboom, the Republican who managed the new law on the Senate floor, has said it is more narrowly focused than the 2012 law. Rozenboom, a hog farmer, argued during Senate debate that "agriculture in Iowa deserves protection from those who would intentionally use deceptive practices to distort public perception of best practices to safely and responsibly produce food."
"I wish they'd find something better to do than defend liars and people that misrepresent the truth," he said Monday.
He said the bill also serves as an important safeguard against spreading foreign animal diseases that would bring Iowa agriculture to its knees.
Reynolds said in a statement that she's committed to protecting Iowa farmers.
"We are working with the attorney general's office to ensure this legislation that supports farmers is upheld," she said.
The groups say their inability to conduct undercover investigations in Iowa allows agricultural enterprises in Iowa to keep hidden from public scrutiny food safety, labor, and animal welfare issues.
The animal rights groups also say the new law applies to the states estimated 250 puppy mills, facilities that breed large numbers of dogs for the pet trade, some of which have been found to allow dogs to suffer in abusive conditions.