Iowa Legislature makes ag whistleblowing a crime

The passage of the so-called “ag gag” bill (Senate File 2172) has been approved by the Iowa House and Senate. And, yes, it was changed from the over-the-top House version that passed in that chamber during 2011, but the basic sentiment has remained.

For a really good wrap-up of debate, comments and voting, click over to Bleeding Heartland.

Iowa lawmakers have essentially said that Iowa’s agricultural operations need protections that other businesses do not. Further, they have diminished fraud laws already on the books.

SF 2172 no longer goes directly after hidden videos, which the U.S. Supreme Court have ruled to be exercises of free speech, but instead has created a new criminal class: Agricultural Production Facility Fraud. Individuals who obtain access to a farm or agricultural facility under false pretenses or lie on a job application with the intent of whistleblowing will be subject to aggravated misdemeanor charges.

Iowa Code 714.8 defines fraud, and 7184.8(3) states:

Knowingly executes or tenders a false certification under penalty of perjury, false affidavit, or false certificate, if the certification, affidavit or certificate is required by law or given in support of a claim for compensation, indemnification, restitution or other payment

While I’m no attorney, I clearly see this statute as applying to job applications or documents “given in support of a claim for compensation … or other payment.”

But perhaps the most interesting section of law ALREADY ON THE BOOKS is found in 717A.2, which states in full (highlighted by me for emphasis):

717A.2 Animal facilities — civil action — criminal penalties.

1. A person shall not, without the consent of the owner, do any of the following:
a. Willfully destroy property of an animal facility, or kill or injure an animal maintained at an animal facility, including by an act of violence or the transmission of a disease including but not limited to any disease designated by the department of agriculture and land stewardship pursuant to section 163.2.
b. Exercise control over an animal facility including property of the animal facility, or an animal maintained at an animal facility, with intent to deprive the animal facility of an animal or property.
c. Enter onto or into an animal facility, or remain on or in an animal facility, if the person has notice that the facility is not open to the public, if the person has an intent to do one of the following:
(1) Disrupt operations conducted at the animal facility, if the operations directly relate to agricultural production, animal maintenance, educational or scientific purposes, or veterinary care.
(2) Kill or injure an animal maintained at the animal facility.
A person has notice that an animal facility is not open to the public if the person is provided notice before entering onto or into the facility, or the person refuses to immediately depart from the facility after being informed to leave. The notice may be in the form of a written or verbal communication by the owner, a fence or other enclosure designed to exclude intruders or contain animals, or a sign posted which is reasonably likely to come to the attention of an intruder and which indicates that entry is forbidden.

2. A person suffering damages resulting from an action which is in violation of subsection 1 may bring an action in the district court against the person causing the damage to recover all of the following:
a. An amount equaling three times all actual and consequential damages.
b. Court costs and reasonable attorney fees.

3. A person violating this section is guilty of the following:
a. A person who violates subsection 1, paragraph “a”, is guilty of a class “C” felony if the injury to or death of an animal or damage to property exceeds ten thousand dollars, a class “D” felony if the injury to or death of an animal or damage to property exceeds one thousand dollars but does not exceed ten thousand dollars, an aggravated misdemeanor if the injury to or death of an animal or damage to property exceeds one hundred dollars but does not exceed one thousand dollars, a serious misdemeanor if the injury to or death of an animal or damage to property exceeds fifty dollars but does not exceed one hundred dollars, or a simple misdemeanor if the injury to or death of an animal or damage to property does not exceed fifty dollars.
b. A person who violates subsection 1, paragraph “b”, is guilty of a class “D” felony.
c. A person who violates subsection 1, paragraph “c”, is guilty of an aggravated misdemeanor.

4. a. This section does not prohibit any conduct of a person holding a legal interest in an animal or property which is superior to the interest held by a person suffering from damages resulting from the conduct.
b. This section does not apply to a governmental agency that is taking lawful action against an animal or animal facility.
c. This section does not apply to a licensed veterinarian practicing veterinary medicine as provided in chapter 169 and according to customary standards of care.

Aggravated misdemeanors, according to the Code, are crimes where the amount of money or value of property or service involved exceeds $500 but doesn’t rise above $1,000; or in cases where it is not possible to determine an exact value.

With these statutes already being a part of state law, you might be asking yourself why certain lawmakers chose to pass another bill that basically duplicates what already exists. The answer, at least in my opinion, has much more to do with politics than policy.

First, this is an election year and several well-known agricultural entities (backed by several well-known thick wallets) had voiced strong support for this bill.

Second, it’s difficult to make news stories on existing law — especially the portions of law that are very rarely used by those it has been written to protect. The news coverage alone on this issue will effectively chill those individuals and groups who have an interest in using undercover investigation as a means to expose animal abuse or questionable farm practices. No doubt many from the rural community will argue such a chilling to be a good thing; that individuals were not only seeking work in an ag facility for the purpose of investigation but in order to manipulate situations that would result in the same abuse that is videotaped. But making such assertions begs the question as to why agricultural procedures, who were already given the necessary Code statutes, didn’t seek prosecution of the individuals they claim were acting in such a manner.

And, while this bill does not break any new legal ground in respect to ag facilities, it does fuel a public perception of general disgust and distrust that’s already several generations removed from farming operations. In short, it forces the public to reconsider what’s behind the walls and fences of Iowa farms that they don’t need or don’t want to see.  On the issue of agriculture, like most issues in our country, the majority of people fall somewhere between the two extreme viewpoints that emerge. That is, most have little interest in becoming vegetarians and most understand that it is difficult for producers to keep large amounts of livestock without modifying behaviors.

Instead of spending contributor and supporter money to lobby or push for inefficient and unneeded legislation like this, agricultural advocacy groups would have been much better served by educating the public on practices, such as tail docking, that are often portrayed as abuse. Perhaps after being given all the facts about such practices, the public will demand something be done differently — perhaps they won’t. Perhaps the public will press lawmakers to make fundamental changes in the way livestock is confined — perhaps they won’t.

The only sure thing in all of this is that one more law of the same ilk as laws already passed and largely ignored won’t stop anyone. Individuals who want to to investigate will still investigate. Hidden videos and recordings will still be made. Agriculture will continue to receive a black eye, whether its deserved or not. The public will continue to be confused and angered by both sides of the equation.

But, I guess, all of that is OK so long as a few people in Des Moines can pound their chest between now and November.

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A Republican turned Democrat who is now registered with no party, Lynda is the founder of Essential Estrogen. She and her husband live in eastern Iowa with their two (mostly good) children and two (mostly good) dogs. Their oldest child was turned loose on the world in 2011 and is making her home in another state. A journalist, essayist and hobby fiction writer, Lynda's work has been seen in Salon, RH Reality Check, the Atlantic, The Iowa Independent, UK Guardian as well as other online and traditional publications. She has also appeared as a guest on various television and radio news shows.

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