Iowa Lawmakers Pass Bill Seeking To Stop Farm Investigations

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Iowa lawmakers for the fourth time have approved restrictions aimed at stopping animal welfare activists from documenting animal abuse at livestock farms.

The Iowa House passed the latest bill Monday night and the state Senate approved it last week. The bill received bipartisan support in both chambers and is likely to be signed by Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds, who has supported such efforts in the past.

An Iowa law passed in 2012 was struck down by the courts as an unconstitutional violation of free speech rights. Legal challenges to a second attempt resulted in a judge halting enforcement until a final decision is made in federal court. Another law passed last year that is in force allows someone to be charged with criminal trespassing for entering a food operation without consent.

The latest bill would expand restrictions by making it an aggravated misdemeanor to enter private property without the consent of the owner and take samples of soil, water or animal products. It would also criminalize placing a camera or other surveillance device on the property. Conviction would a sentence of up to two years in prison. A second offense could be prosecuted as a felony and carry a sentence of up to five years behind bars.

Matthew Johnson, an animal activist with the group Direction Action Everywhere, faces charges under last year's trespass law for a Feb. 5 action he took outside an Iowa Select Farms pig operation in Dows, 75 miles (120 kilometers) north of Des Moines.

Investigators say surveillance video captured Johnson approach one of the buildings and try to pull a door to determine if it was locked before running away. Iowa Select Farms, one of the nation’s largest pork producers, turned over the footage to the Wright County sheriff’s office and Johnson was charged last month.

Defenders of such laws, including Republican state Sen. Ken Rozenboom, a hog farmer from Oskaloosa, say Johnson and other activists who enter the barns risk spreading disease by violating biosecurity protocols.

Johnson has said he and other activists follow biosecurity measures. He also says such laws are designed to stop undercover investigations that expose poor conditions and the sometimes abusive treatment of animals and turn public opinion against the meat industry.

Such laws have been around since the 1990s, but lawmakers in many agricultural states have stepped up their efforts in recent years to give farmers tools to go after activists.

States that have passed such laws include Alabama, Missouri, Montana and North Dakota.

Laws have been successfully challenged and struck down as unconstitutional in Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, North Carolina and Utah, according to the Animal Legal Defense Fund, a nonprofit focused on protecting and advancing the interests of animals through the legal system.

The group said laws in about 19 other states have been introduced but defeated in the legislatures.