A Win for Animal Rights Activists: A Federal Court Declared an Iowa ‘Ag-Gag’ Law Unconstitutional

By Samantha Feroce

The largest beef recall in United States History was sparked by an undercover investigation into the daily activities of the Hallmark-Westland Meatpacking Company in California.[1] This investigation revealed the horrible conditions and abuse that dairy cows were experiencing, and also the many public health violations that Hallmark-Westland committed.[2] Hallmark-Westland then declared bankruptcy, and was ordered to pay a judgment of $497 million[3]in a lawsuit accusing them of defrauding the federal government by not treating animals humanely – a requirement to be a school lunch contractor.[4] While this was seen as a great success for those considering animal rights, the nation’s meat and dairy industries felt it was a violation.

In response to the Hallmark-Westland investigation, a series of ‘ag-gag’ laws were introduced in several states. ‘Ag-gag’ laws are laws that penalize whistleblowers who investigate the conditions and daily activities of industrial farms.[5] The majority of ag-gag laws that were introduced included criminal penalties for violating the law, while only a few imposed civil sanctions.[6] However, this year, a federal court struck down an Iowa ag-gag law that made it a crime to lie about your intentions when accessing an industrial farm.[7] This Iowa law was specifically aimed at undercover journalists and activists – a clear attempt at preventing undercover investigations of the meat and dairy industries.[8] The ACLU brought a lawsuit against the state of Iowa claiming the laws were a violation of the First Amendment right to freedom of speech, and that the laws also that the laws violated the Fourteenth Amendment under the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses.[9] The U.S District Court granted the plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment on the claim of freedom of speech because the type of speech Iowa was attempting to limit was considered protected speech, and because the law was targeting content-based speech, which is presumptively unconstitutional.[10]

This ruling is a huge win for animal rights activists, as it sets precedent for further litigation regarding the constitutionality of other states’ ag-gag laws. Without the criminalization of this conduct, hopefully instances and common practices of animal cruelty in industrial farms will be brought to the attention of the public and eliminated once and for all.


[1]Alicia Prygoski, Detailed Discussion of Ag-gag Laws, Animal Legal & Historical Center (Jan. 24, 2019) https://www.animallaw.info/article/detailed-discussion-ag-gag-laws.


[3]Hallmark-Westland went bankrupt, so they couldn’t pay the judgement, but this was considered a symbolic deterrent for other players in the meat and dairy industries.

[4]Michael Winter, Calif. Meat packer to pay $317M over abuse, recall,USA Today, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2012/11/16/california-slaughterhouse-fraud-settlement-beef-recall/1710693/.

[5]What Is Ag-Gag Legislation, ASPCA (Jan. 24, 2019) https://www.aspca.org/animal-protection/public-policy/what-ag-gag-legislation

[6]Prygoski, supraat 1.

[7]Esha Bhandari, Court Rules ‘Ag-Gag’ Law Criminalizing Undercover Reporting Violates the First Amendment, ACLU (Jan. 24, 2019) https://www.aclu.org/blog/free-speech/freedom-press/court-rules-ag-gag-law-criminalizing-undercover-reporting-violates.


[9]Animal Legal Def. Fund et al. v. Reynolds et al., No. 4:17-cv-00362-JEG-HCA (SD Iowa filed Jan. 9, 2019) (can be found at http://www.aclu-ia.org/sites/default/files/ag_gag_order.pdf).



  1. It is great to see the court providing more protection for whistleblowers. I am curious to see how other jurisdictions will view this decision and whether such rationale will be adopted.

  2. Great post! I look forward to seeing how this case will stand upon appeal. With the Eighth Circuit being comprised of agricultural-heavy states, I am curious to see how this factors into the appellate court’s decision.

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