A federal judge struck down an Iowa law that made it illegal to get a job at a livestock farm to conduct an animal cruelty undercover investigation on Wednesday.
U.S. District Court Judge James Gritzner ruled that the law violated the constitutional right to free speech, according to the Associated Press. His ruling aligns with opponents of the 2012 law which was intended to prevent organizations such as the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals from doing animal abuse investigations at farms and puppy mills.
"To some degree, the concept of constitutional protection for speech that is false may be disquieting," Gritzner said. Quoting the U.S. Supreme Court he added, "the Nation well knows that one of the costs of the First Amendment is that it protects the speech we detest as well as the speech we embrace."
The First Amendment protects false statements, Gritzner said, "whether they be investigative deceptions or innocuous lies."
The law, previously approved by Iowa lawmakers, had threatened up to a year in jail to those who conducted an undercover operation.
Some called the ruling an important victory for free speech. Rita Bettis Austen, legal director for the ACLU of Iowa, argued the so-called ag-gag law was an example of government using its power to protect those with power.
However, the Iowa Pork Producers Association (IPPA) expressed their disappointment at the judge’s ruling. The organization shared that it was never the intent of farmers to infringe on others’ constitutional rights, but that they were relying on the courts to help protect farmers’ rights to lawfully conduct their businesses and care for their animals.
“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,” IPPA officials said in a statement. “We’re disappointed that the court did not agree with the way the law was written.”
Iowa pig farmers will continue to properly care for their animals and provide safe and secure working conditions for their employees, IPPA said. If needed, they will fight those who try to destroy or attach their livelihoods one case at a time, they added.
Iowa is not the only state that has passed a law like this. Similar laws in Idaho, Utah and Wyoming have been struck down. Litigation is ongoing in North Carolina.
Legislators have introduced farm protection bills to protect the farms and ranches in their state from sensational and misleading tactics of animal rights extremists, said Hannah Thompson-Weeman of the Animal Agriculture Alliance.
“This country’s food supply is produced by less than 2% of its population,” Thompson-Weeman said. “The majority of America’s farmers and ranchers do the right thing every day, and those individuals don’t deserve to be worried about every job applicant being an undercover activist determined to bring down their family farm at all costs. Agriculture is a matter of national security and has been designated as such by the Department of Homeland Security.”
A spokesman for the Iowa attorney general’s office, which represented the state, said an appeal is under consideration, according to the Associated Press.