Prosecutors have dismissed a second case against an Iowa animal rights activist who recorded secret video of hogs being euthanized at two Iowa pork facilities.
Cresco native Matt Johnson, an activist affiliated with the organization Direct Action Everywhere, made headlines in early 2020 when he released footage of hundreds of pigs being killed in Grundy County by Iowa Select Farms, a major pork producer, early in the pandemic. Unable to ship pigs to slaughterhouses that were shuttered due to COVID, Select Farms euthanized the animals by shutting down ventilation in their barns and overheating them.
Company officials said afterward that the process was the safest and most humane option available, and condemned activists for using hidden cameras and false pretenses to infiltrate their facilities.
Johnson was charged with trespass and other crimes at two Select Farms facilities in Grundy and Wright counties. Grundy County prosecutors dismissed their charges on the eve of a January 2021 trial, saying the company had asked the case be dismissed after Johnson subpoenaed a number of Select Farms executives and employees to testify.
In Wright County, Johnson's trial was to begin Thursday, but again, prosecutors have backed down. Prosecutors filed a motion Tuesday to dismiss all charges against Johnson "in the interest of justice," which the judge granted after a short hearing Wednesday.
In an interview, Johnson said agricultural interests want laws to deter activists such as himself but haven't been willing to face scrutiny in court themselves.
"I think it speaks to the moral power of what we're doing," he said. "And when push comes to shove and it's time to publicly account for their actions, they want no part of it."
Undercover investigations draw officials' ire
The dismissal is a new twist in a long-running Iowa policy battle. In addition to burglary and electronic eavesdropping charges, Johnson was also charged with food operation trespass, a law designed to counter the practice by animal rights activists of publicizing photos and videos from inside animal barns and slaughterhouses.
Iowa legislators have passed four so-called "ag-gag" laws over the past decade, and litigation against several remains ongoing. That complicated legal and legislative history can be seen in the course of Johnson's case. He was charged in May 2020 with agricultural production facility trespass, a crime created under Iowa's second ag-gag law in 2019, which was passed after a court declared the state's first law unconstitutional.
In June 2020, Wright County dismissed the charges under the second law, which by then had also been blocked by the courts. The third ag-gag law, criminalizing food operation trespass, was passed later that month, and in March 2021, after Johnson was reportedly spotted trying to get into the Select Farms facility again, he was charged again under the third law.
A fourth law, approved in 2021, has also been challenged in court. The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals partially upheld the 2012 law in August, while the 2019 law remains enjoined and the lawsuit against it is still pending.
The lawsuits challenging the first, second and fourth laws were brought by a coalition led by the Animal Legal Defense Fund. An attorney with the group confirmed the group has not and doesn't currently plan to sue to block the third law, which is the one under which Johnson was charged in Wright County.
Court rules charges constitutional even in dismissal
Judge Derek Johnson dismissed Matt Johnson's Wright County case Wednesday, but not before handing Select Farms a win.
In the leadup to trial, Matt Johnson had filed a motion to dismiss his food operation trespass charges, arguing that the law amounted to criminalizing free speech and journalistic investigations in violation of the First Amendment. On Tuesday, the same day prosecutors moved to dismiss the case, Judge Johnson denied that motion, citing the 8th Circuit decision that found it constitutional to prohibit gaining access to an agricultural facility under false pretenses.
"Even assuming investigative journalism required the ability to trespass in order to record videos of alleged unethical treatment of animals, such a requirement is not sufficient to effectively make any food animal operation in Iowa a public place," Judge Johnson wrote.
Wright County prosecutors did not respond to a message seeking comment on the decision to drop the case. A spokesperson for Select Farms said the company's understanding was the case was dismissed due to evidentiary issues, but emphasized the court's ruling that the underlying law was constitutionally sound.
"The Defendant claimed he should be able to access private property in the name of investigative journalism, but the court denied that argument and protected the rights of private agricultural facilities," Jen Sorenson, a spokeswoman for the company, said in an emailed statement. "The defendant also argued the law is designed to discriminate against animal rights activists and treat them differently, but the court denied that argument, too. The ruling indicates that the law, on its face, does not treat any type of trespasser differently."
In an ironic procedural twist, Matt Johnson opposed the state's effort to dismiss the case, arguing that he deserved a right to clear his name of some of the more inflammatory allegations against him. The judge refused, saying he would not order a jury to appear just for the prosecutor to refuse to try the case.
As for the judge's ruling on the charges' constitutionality, Matt Johnson and his attorney, Wayne Hsiung, think the war there is far from over.
"(The judge) himself can see that animal rights activists are pretty likely being targeted by the statute, but because facially the law literally does not say it's criminalizing speech, even its intent was to discriminate against people expressing certain views, (he) doesn't have grounds to strike this entire law down," Hsiung said.
"Honestly, the appropriate venue for us to challenge this law on its face as unconstitutional is an appellate court and likely federal court," he added. "And I think that you might see that sort of challenge presented over the course the next few months and years."
William Morris covers courts for the Des Moines Register. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, 715-573-8166 or on Twitter at @DMRMorris.
This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Ag gag case dropped against Iowa activist who recorded hog slaughter