Iowa’s ag-gag laws infringe on First Amendment rights

Most people would like to feel safe about what they’re putting on their plates and into their bodies, but the agricultural industry doesn’t want you to know, and trying to find out can land you in jail.

Iowa is the leading egg and pork producing state in America. Now, it is one of the leading silencers of journalists and health advocates.

In Iowa, “Ag-Gag” laws, a term coined in a 2011 New York Times column by Mark Bittman, criminalize attempts to expose animal cruelty and food safety by prohibiting citizens from gaining access to agricultural facilities by means of false pretenses.

Senate File 431 and House File 589 interdict anyone from recording or distributing “visual or audio experience occurring at [an] animal facility.” The law was first introduced in 2012, and the misdemeanor is punishable by up to a year in jail, even if the evidence uncovered is proven to be true or unlawful.

These laws remain in eight states, but have been ruled unconstitutional in Idaho, Wyoming and Utah for their violations of the First Amendment and the censorship of unpopular speech aimed to expose unjust practices within the agriculture industry.

Those in our own state legislature who stand for strict backing of the Constitution, which includes the right to free speech, are some of the same people who back the Ag-Gag laws for their unyielding protection of private interests in industry, even if it means violating free speech and putting the public health at risk.

These Ag-Gag laws allow unhealthy practices and ethics to continue within Iowa’s hefty agriculture industry for the sake of profit. The absence of such laws has allowed some of the largest food safety recalls to occur in states like California, while the presence of such laws has hindered investigations in other states.

Those who investigate, document and share the violations of food safety, worker’s rights and environmental precautions are censored and punished for being the only party to tell the truth about our food.

The type of muckraking journalism that the Iowa State legislature and Ag-Gag laws have worked tirelessly to prevent has precedent in the United States, dating back to more than one hundred years ago, but it seems timelier than ever.

Upton Sinclair uncovered atrocious conditions in Chicago’s meatpacking plants and directly influenced the passage of the Meat Inspection Act, the Pure Food and Drug Act and the creation of the Food and Drug Administration through the publication of his 1906 novel “The Jungle.” Ida Tarbell exposed John Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company and its inequitable practices in crafting an untouchable monopoly. William Gaines denuded the twisted practices of a for-profit hospital in Chicago by posing as a janitor — a similar practice that contemporary lawmakers aim to curb through laws like the Ag-Gags.

These journalists pioneered the art of protecting the public from those they rely on: industry and government. Why should we allow their line of work be reversed due to the modern insecurities of the agriculture business and the dependency of those in power? The integrity of Iowa’s agriculture business must be maintained.

Since the days of journalists like Sinclair, Tarbell and Gaines, investigative journalism has acted as the initiator of change within industry; it performs in the spirit of America’s value for free speech and flourishes under the First Amendment.

The Ag-Gag laws present in Iowa undermine American values and traditions of the press, and they pose a threat to American democracy for its ability to shield those in power from public consequence by threatening individuals and perpetrating fraud. It battles against the very values that thousands of those before us fought to maintain. They simultaneously threaten our rights and our health and perpetuate the competent facade of a system designed to hoodwink consumers into supporting dangerous antics.

The desperation to conserve their masquerade of propriety is telling of our agricultural industry. What do they want to hide about the food on our plates? Ignorance is not bliss.

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