Iowa Quietly Passes Its Third Ag-Gag Bill After Constitutional Challenges

The bill would create a new crime called “food operation trespass,” in yet another attempt to penalize activists for uncovering conditions at factory farms.

Activists with Direct Action Everywhere captured a photo of an overcrowded pig farm owned by Iowa Sen. Ken Rozenboom. Photo: Direct Action Everywhere

In the midst of uprisings against police brutality across the U.S., Iowa legislators quietly passed a bill on Friday to increase penalties for animal rights activism that has targeted the factory farming industry. Debates in both the state House and Senate were followed rapidly by votes in favor of the legislation. The bill now awaits the governor’s signature.

“The intent is to silence whistleblowers and those that would expose animal welfare abuses,” said Adam Mason, the state policy director for Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, which has fought two previous ag-gag laws in Iowa courts.

The latest bill would create a new crime, “food operation trespass,” for anyone who enters a location without permission where a “food animal” is kept or where meat is sold or processed. Animal rights activists have repeatedly published damning footage of Iowa farms that reveals sick or wounded animals and overcrowded conditions. In some cases, such footage has been captured via undercover investigations in which an activist obtains a job at a factory farm; in others, activists have entered properties surreptitiously to film poor conditions.

A first-time trespasser would now face up to two years of incarceration and a fine of up to $6,250. If they entered a farm without authorization a second time, they could be charged with a felony carrying up to five years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to $7,500.

This is the third time Iowa legislators have passed a so-called ag-gag bill, a type of legislation named for its ability to stifle free speech about agricultural facilities. The first version was overturned on First Amendment grounds in January 2019, and the second was put on hold while a constitutional challenge moves through the courts.

The latest version was buried at the bottom of an agriculture bill that largely addressed coronavirus-related concerns. Iowa’s legislature, which had been suspended since the pandemic began, only returned to work last week. “Doing this on their third day back in session, as people are protesting against police violence, is pretty nefarious,” Mason said. The Iowa Pork Producers Association lobbied on behalf of the bill, while the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, the Iowa Broadcasters Association, and the environmental organization Food and Water Watch lobbied against it.

“This really does show the power that industrialized agriculture wields with Iowa legislators,” Mason added.

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Iowa isn’t alone in using legislation to criminalize animal rights activism and whistleblowing. For more than a decade, the American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization that links industry lobbyists with state lawmakers, has promoted a model ag-gag bill. More than two dozen states have introduced versions of the bill, and in half a dozen states, they remain law. In Idaho, Utah, Kansas, and Wyoming, ag-gag laws have been overturned as unconstitutional.

State Sen. Ken Rozenboom, who sponsored Iowa’s second ag-gag bill in 2019, is a factory farm owner himself. This past January, activists with Direct Action Everywhere released disturbing photos from one of his facilities, which showed pigs with rectal prolapses and wounds, and the corpses of dead animals left among the living. “I’m ashamed of it,” Rozenboom told the Des Moines Register. The senator claimed that another farmer had been leasing the facility when the footage was captured. He acknowledged “caretaker deficiencies” and said that he had since leased the farm to someone else because of his concerns.

The activists’ investigation apparently only deepened Rozenboom’s commitment to passing ag-gag legislation. He sponsored the latest iteration, which was first introduced in February. Mason noted that the newest version of the bill is significantly scaled back and leaves out references to video footage or attempts to gain employment, sticking instead to trespass penalties. He said that if Gov. Kim Reynolds signs the bill into law, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement will bring another challenge in court.

“I could easily find my farm, my name, the number of animals in the building, and that sort of thing. This is chilling, folks.”

During a discussion of the bill on Friday, Rozenboom said that it is meant to “address the gravest threats to animal agriculture in Iowa today.” He went on to describe a new endeavor by animal rights activists called Project Counterglow. The centerpiece of the project, as The Intercept has reported, is a map with the locations of more than 27,000 farms and animal agriculture facilities.

“Just a couple hours ago I accessed the interactive map. I could easily find my farm, my name, the number of animals in the building, and that sort of thing. This is chilling, folks,” Rozenboom said, noting that many farmers live next to their facilities. “What I’ve learned from experience — personal, firsthand experience — is that the M.O. here is simply lies, deception, and intimidation. That’s what they do.”

“The penalties that exist mean nothing to some of these people,” he added. “They laugh at them.”

Kecia Doolittle, who led the team that created Project Counterglow, said that the activists weren’t interested in hurting farmers. The idea is to expose an abusive, secretive industry that forces millions of animals to live in torturous conditions, she said. As for lies and deception, she added, the images speak for themselves.

Doolittle takes the new law as an ominous sign. She noted that the Animal Agriculture Alliance, an industry group, has reportedly contacted the FBI and Department of Homeland Security about Project Counterglow. “We haven’t actually seen the worst they can do yet,” she said.

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