In January, we wrote about state “ag-gag” laws and the trend of federal courts overturning such laws nationwide. “Ag-gag” is the term for fraud and trespass laws that aim to prevent undercover journalists, investigators, animal rights advocates, and other whistleblowers from secretly filming or recording at agricultural production facilities. We specifically discussed a case in Iowa, where the state’s “agricultural production facility fraud law” was found to be unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds in the federal District Court for the Southern District of Iowa. In response to that ruling, the legislature modified the law, but a group made up of animal rights, community, and food safety organizations has again sued the state. The plaintiffs contend that the new law still violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution.
Iowa law: current and former
Shortly following the aforementioned district court decision, Iowa passed a new ag-gag law with slightly different language. The new Iowa law changes the crime from “agricultural production facility fraud” to “agricultural production facility trespass.” The legislature also changed the language from outlawing false statements or pretenses to outlawing deception. Another important change is the focus in the new statutory language on the “intent to cause physical or economic harm or other injury” to the farm.
The new law reads:
717A.3B Agricultural production facility trespass.
1. A person commits agricultural production facility trespass if the person does any of the following:
a. Uses deception as described in section 702.9, subsection 1 or 2, on a matter that would reasonably result in a denial of access to an agricultural production facility that is not open to the public, and, through such deception, gains access to the agricultural production facility, with the intent to cause physical or economic harm or other injury to the agricultural production facility's operations, agricultural animals, crop, owner, personnel, equipment, building, premises, business interest, or customer.
b. Uses deception as described in section 702.9, subsection 1 or 2, on a matter that would reasonably result in a denial of an opportunity to be employed at an agricultural production facility that is not open to the public, and, through such deception, is so employed, with the intent to cause physical or economic harm or other injury to the agricultural production facility's operations, agricultural animals, crop, owner, personnel, equipment, building, premises, business interest, or customer.
Iowa law defines “deception,” in part, as “knowingly…[c]reating or confirming another’s belief or impression as to the existence or nonexistence of a fact or condition which is false and which the actor does not believe to be true,” or “[f]ailing to correct a false belief or impression as to the existence or nonexistence of a fact or condition which the actor previously has created or confirmed.”
The previous Iowa law, which was struck down in a district court decision, is currently still available on the Iowa Legislature’s website. The old law made it illegal to gain access to a facility through false pretenses and to make a “false statement or representation” in order to be employed by an agricultural production facility. Note that the former law did not use the word “deception,” or touch on injury to the farm.
In the district court decision overturning the previous law, Judge Gritzner agreed with the plaintiffs that the language of the law violated the First Amendment right to free speech because it was content-based, viewpoint based, and overbroad. He decided that even though the law banned false statements, such false statements are still protected under the First Amendment. In other words, just because Iowa livestock operators do not like the speech of the activists and whistleblowers trying to gain access to their farms, it does not mean that the speech should be infringed upon.
Animal rights groups and others challenge the new law
On April 22, 2019, shortly after the passage of Iowa’s new law, plaintiffs filed suit against the state once again in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa. Plaintiffs include Animal Legal Defense Fund, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, Bailing out Benji, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Inc., and the Center for Food Safety. In their complaint against the state of Iowa, plaintiffs contend that the new law still violates the Constitution, saying that “the only difference” between the two laws is that the new law “targets a slightly different form of speech.” In other words, Iowa has changed its law from outlawing false statements or pretenses to outlawing deception, but the plaintiffs believe the new law basically ends up doing the same thing as the old, overturned ag-gag law; it prevents their speech based on content and viewpoint. Plaintiffs rely on the following arguments to illustrate their reasoning:
- Iowa’s new law bans any negative speech about the agricultural industry, which creates a preference for speech favorable to the industry.
- Whistleblowing is not criminalized in other Iowa industries.
- Iowa statutes already outlaw fraud, trespass, and adulteration of food products, as well as the theft of trade secrets, so agriculture already has adequate protection from economic harm.
- Outlawing deception “with the intent to cause…other injury” is too vague; it is not easily discernable what other kinds of speech or actions might be illegal under the statute.
As such, the plaintiffs allege that the Iowa law violates freedom of speech under the First Amendment because it is overbroad, viewpoint-based discrimination, and because it is vaguely written under the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Finally, plaintiffs contend that the law violates the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process clause because it “substantially burdens” their exercise of free speech. The court must determine whether or not they agree with this assessment.
Many “ag-gag” statutes struck down as unconstitutional, but many more decisions to go
As was mentioned in our January blog post, there is ongoing ag-gag litigation outside of Iowa, as well. Kansas and North Carolina have both been sued for their ag-gag statutes, and both cases are still pending. Will the federal courts find laws in Iowa, Kansas and North Carolina unconstitutional like they have previously in Iowa, as well as in Idaho, Utah and Wyoming, or will they find that they do not violate freedom of speech and due process? Will lawsuits challenge the remaining ag-gag laws in Alabama, Arkansas, Missouri, Montana, and North Dakota? The answers may take a while to sort out.
Written by Ellen Essman, Sr. Research Associate
Over the last several months, three nuisance cases have been decided against Smithfield Foods in federal court in North Carolina. The juries in the cases have found Smithfield’s large farms, with thousands of hogs, and the odor, traffic, and flies that come along with them, to be a nuisance to neighboring landowners. Smithfield has been ordered to pay hefty damages to the neighbors, and more cases against the company remain to be decided. Given the outcomes of the cases that have been decided thus far, farmers and landowners in Ohio might be wondering how Ohio law compares to North Carolina law as pertains to agricultural nuisances.
Ohio’s Right-to-Farm law
Many states, including both Ohio and North Carolina, have “right-to-farm” legislation, which in part is meant to protect agriculture from nuisance lawsuits such as those filed against Smithfield. While nearly every state has a right-to-farm statute, they do differ in language and how they go about protecting agriculture.
Ohio farmers have right-to-farm protection in two parts of the Revised Code. ORC Chapter 929 establishes “agricultural districts.” Generally, in order to place land in an agricultural district, the owner of the land must file an application with the county auditor. Certain requirements must be met in order for an application to be accepted. Slightly different rules apply if the land in question is within a municipal corporation or is being annexed by a municipality. If the application is accepted, the land is placed in an agricultural district for five years. The owner may submit a renewal application after that time is up.
Being part of an agricultural district in Ohio can help farmers and landowners to defend against civil lawsuits. ORC 929.04 reads:
In a civil action for nuisances involving agricultural activities, it is a complete defense if:
- The agricultural activities were conducted within an agricultural district;
- Agricultural activities were established within the agricultural district prior to the plaintiff’s activities or interest on which the action is based;
- The plaintiff was not involved in agricultural production; and
- The agricultural activities were not in conflict with federal, state, and local laws and rules relating to the alleged nuisance or were conducted in accordance with generally accepted agriculture practices.
The ORC’s chapter on nuisances provides additional protection for those “engaged in agriculture-related activities.” Under ORC 3767.13, people who are practicing agricultural activities “outside a municipal corporation, in accordance with generally accepted agricultural practices, and in such a manner so as not to have a substantial, adverse effect on public health, safety, or welfare” are typically exempt from claims of nuisance due to farm noise, smells, etc.
North Carolina’s Right-to-Farm law
Much like Ohio, North Carolina farm land can be part of an “agricultural district.” North Carolina’s preservation of farmland law is available here. This program is meant to protect agricultural land—land that is part of an agricultural district is must be used for agriculture for at least 10 years. However, unlike Ohio’s law, North Carolina does not specifically spell out that land in agricultural districts will be protected from nuisance suits when the landowner follows the rules of the agricultural district. North Carolina’s law does state that one of the purposes of agricultural districts is to “increase protection from nuisance suits and other negative impacts on properly managed farms,” but unlike Ohio, it does not explicitly state that being part of an agricultural district is a defense to a nuisance lawsuit.
North Carolina also has a statute which specifically spells out the right-to-farm. In response to the recent jury decisions, however, North Carolina has changed its right-to-farm law. The original law read:
- No agricultural or forestry operation or any of its appurtenances shall be or become a nuisance, private or public, by any changed conditions in or about the locality outside of the operation after the operation has been in operation for more than one year, when such an operation was not a nuisance at the time the operation began.
(a1) The provisions of subsection (a) of this section shall not apply when the plaintiff demonstrates that the agricultural or forestry operation has undergone a fundamental change. A fundamental change does not include any of the following:
- A change in ownership or size.
- An interruption of farming for a period of no more than three years.
- Participation in a government-sponsored agricultural program.
- Employment of new technology.
- A change in the type of agricultural or forestry product produced.
The original law did not protect agricultural operations if their actions were negligent or improper. The original law is available here.
Following the first decision against Smithfield, the North Carolina legislature overrode the Governor’s veto to implement amendments to the state’s right-to-farm law. In the amendments, available here (sections 106-701 and 106-702), the legislature substantially changed the language of the law, making what constitutes a nuisance much more explicit and dependent on certain factors. What is more, the new version of the law places limits on when plaintiffs can recover punitive damages for a private nuisance action.
A comparison of the Ohio and North Carolina’s sections of legislation promoting the “right-to-farm” shows how different the two states are. Ohio’s legislative language makes it obvious that the meaning of the law is to protect agriculture from nuisance suits—by specifically stating that being in an agricultural district is a complete defense to nuisance, and that otherwise, agriculture is generally exempt from nuisance suits. North Carolina’s law concerning agricultural districts does not specifically state that being in such a district is a defense to nuisance, instead, it simply expresses the hope that districts will “increase protection from nuisance suits.” Furthermore, while North Carolina’s original right-to-farm law stated that agricultural operations do not “become a nuisance” due to changed conditions in the community, that language is not very specific. Ohio’s agricultural district language lays out exactly what must be done to have a complete defense against a nuisance lawsuit; North Carolina’s language in multiple parts of the General Statutes does not have the same degree of specificity.
Permit as a defense to nuisance
In addition to the right-to-farm law, under ORC 903.13, those owning, operating, or responsible for concentrated animal feeding facilities in Ohio have an affirmative defense to a private civil action for nuisance against them if the CAFO is in compliance with best management practices established in the installation permit or permit to operate and the agricultural activities do not violate federal, state, and local laws governing nuisances. North Carolina does not appear to have similar language protecting permitted farms in its General Statutes.
Other factors that may come into play
In the lawsuits against Smithfield farms, the lawyers for the plaintiffs (neighboring landowners) have continuously asserted that Smithfield has “means and ability” to “reduce the nuisance from existing facilities” by ending the use of “lagoon and sprayfield” systems at their farms. Plaintiffs stress that not only is Smithfield Foods, Inc. a large, wealthy, multinational company, but that they have also changed their lagoon and sprayfield practices outside of North Carolina. In lagoon and sprayfield systems, all waste is collected in an open-air lagoon and then sprayed on fields as fertilizer. The practice was first banned for new construction in North Carolina in 1997, and in 2007, the state permanently banned the practice for newly constructed swine facilities. Although many of the facilities in question were opened before any ban on the construction of lagoon and sprayfield facilities, the plaintiffs contend that changes made in other states mean Smithfield can afford to change in North Carolina. The ban on new lagoon and sprayfield systems in North Carolina, and evidence that Smithfield has used different practices to reduce the smell from the farms in other states, likely helped the juries in the cases that have been tried to date find that the farms are a nuisance to their neighbors. The above argument is something operators of livestock facilities in Ohio should be aware of. Although Ohio has not specifically banned lagoon and sprayfield systems like North Carolina has, the ability to change the system could still potentially be used to argue nuisance. Ohio operators are supposed to follow best management practices and the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Field Office Technical guide when applying and storing manure, which include ways to reduce odor from manure and other applications, as well as reducing other types of nutrient pollution. Following such guidelines would likely help operators in any argument against nuisance.