DES MOINES — A bill that sponsors say is necessary to protect Iowa’s livestock production industry is just another version of an “ag gag” law struck down by a federal judge, according to opponents of House File 775, which was approved by the Iowa House 72-24 on March 23 and sent to the Senate.
HF 775 would make “unauthorized sampling” — knowingly entering private property without consent to obtain samples of substances from agricultural animals or any soil, air, or water from farms — an aggravated misdemeanor on first offense and a Class D felony for subsequent offenses. Placing a camera or other electronic surveillance device on someone else’s private property would be a crime under the bill.
The bill, which began as a regulation on police obtaining search warrants from video on private property, would criminalize entering private property to expose violations at confined animal feeding operations, according to the Iowa Citizens for Community Action, which was among those that sued to overturn the Legislature’s 2012 Agricultural Production Facility Fraud statute.
That made it a crime for news reporters, animal rights groups or others to go undercover at livestock production facilities, puppy mills and other agricultural operations to expose working conditions, animal treatment, food safety or environmental hazards.
A federal judge ruled two years ago the law violated First Amendment free-speech protections.
However, Rep. Jarad Klein, R-Keota, said the law wasn’t about stopping whistleblowers and had been restructured to be part of the state trespass statute. He worked with attorneys from both parties to make it more likely it would meet “constitutional and court muster.”
It also was intended to send a signal of strong support for private property rights, Klein said.
“We pay a lot of money to our counties every year to own that property,” the Washington County farmer said. “This just goes to say it’s yours, you have the right to make sure somebody isn’t trespassing or stealing samples.”
The bill could have a “chilling effect” on whistleblowers willing to risk entering private property to document those violations of law or OSHA regulations, said Rep. Ross Wilburn, D-Ames.
HF 775 wouldn’t affect whistleblowers who are on private property as part of their jobs, Klein said.
“If you’re an employee and you think there’s something going wrong, you’re not trespassing when you’re at work recording something and turning it over to OSHA as falling under here because they’re not trespassing,” he said.
“I don’t want to see a whole bunch of untrained people out there doing their own thing just because they feel like doing it,” Klein said.
That endangers the individual as well as the property owner and any others present, he said.
Business and livestock commodity groups supported HF 775 as protection against groups such as Iowa CCI and animal welfare groups they claim are trying to “destroy or attack” farmers’ livelihoods.
However, a 2012 law intended to protect farmers from “subversive” groups trying to give production agricultural a bad name was struck down in federal court. The Iowa Attorney General’s Office argued it was constitutional because it protected biosecurity and private property rights. The law, the state said, regulated conduct without limiting free speech.
The federal court rejected that, ruling Iowa’s law couldn’t be violated “without engaging in speech.”