U.S. District Judge James Gritzner has thrown out a 2012 Iowa law supported by livestock interests that was intended to stop undercover investigations of animal cruelty at confinements. 

Gritzner ruled that the state had failed to show that either the confinements' reputation or biosecurity was harmed by workers observing, and in some cases photographing or recording, what they saw as animal abuse. He wrote that the law violated First Amendment rights.

Several similar state laws have been thrown out as a violation of First Amendment rights, Gritzner noted, including laws in Wyoming, Utah and Idaho.

“Defendants have produced no evidence that the prohibitions [in the Iowa law] are actually necessary to protect perceived harms to property and biosecurity,” the judge wrote. Instead, they offered statements from three lawmakers and then-Gov. Terry Branstad — information that didn’t persuade the judge to block the challenge.

Gritzner will rule later on injunctions and lawyer fees, after giving the parties time to file briefs.

In its filings, the state contended that the law was needed to codify loyalty, which it defines as meaning a “servant must do nothing hostile to the master’s interest.” Wrote Gritzner: “Something not authorized is not necessarily something hostile to the master’s interest. An employer can choose not to authorize a wide variety of conduct, none of which may actually result in a breach of the employee’s duty of loyalty (or cause harm). Here, defendants seek to greatly expand the reach of the duty of loyalty. The Iowa Supreme Court has cautioned that even a civil cause of action based on the breach of the duty of loyalty must be limited in scope.”

Iowa’s law is one of a couple dozen that were passed over the span of a decade when farm groups heavily lobbied state legislatures and distributed a model state law. The laws were passed after activists recorded workers abusing pigs and chickens. 

Gritzner noted that the Iowa law amended a state statute that already “prohibited disrupting, destroying, or damaging property at an animal facility, or on crop operation property, and also the use of pathogens to threaten animals and crops.” The amendment banned people from obtaining access to an “agriculture production facility” by false pretenses or giving false statements while applying for a job “with the intent to commit an act not authorized by the owner” of the farm. 

Iowa also has laws against trespassing and threatening the biosecurity of farm operations.

At the time the bill was debated, Sen. Tom Reilly said, “What we’re aiming at is stopping these groups that go out and gin up campaigns that they use to raise money by trying to give the agriculture industry a bad name.” Violations are various degrees of misdemeanor.

The request for summary judgment in the case came from the Animal Legal Defense Fund, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, Bailing Out Benji, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals Inc. (PETA), and the Center for Food Safety. 

The Iowa Freedom of Information Council and the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism had filed a brief on their behalf. The action was against Gov. Kim Reynolds, Attorney General Tom Miller and Montgomery County Attorney Bruce Swanson, who asked the court to block the challenge to the law. 

Lynn Hicks, spokesman for the Iowa attorney general’s office, said state lawyers were reviewing the decision and had not decided whether to appeal.