|Governor Terry Branstad signed Iowa's "ag gag" bill into law on Friday. I never doubted that Branstad would sign this legislation; whatever big business wants seems to be ok by him. Branstad may not be proud of the new law, because he didn't call a press conference or even send out a press release about the news.
State legislators worked with staff from the Attorney General's office to address the obvious First Amendment problems in the original "ag gag" bill, passed by the Iowa House in 2011. The new bill doesn't criminalize recording or videotaping animal abuse and doesn't punish employee whistleblowers who report animal abuse. Instead, it makes it a crime to seek employment at an agricultural facility or otherwise gain access under false pretenses. I don't know whether that will stand up in court. We'll find out eventually, because animal rights groups are not going to stop trying to expose mistreatment of farm animals in Iowa. Drake University Law Professor Mark Kende expressed doubts about the bill's legality in comments to the Des Moines Register this week.
He said the biggest constitutional hurdle the bill faces is one of "prior restraint" - or efforts to halt speech before it can even be uttered. Kende said the courts have considered it the most sweeping kind of free speech restriction.
"This sounds like it has elements of prior restraint, and that's troubling," said Kende. "The framers" of the U.S. Constitution "were very hostile to anything that snapped at prior restraints." [...]
In addition to prior restraint, there is a presumption that falsehoods also are protected under the First Amendment. That's being tested in a case before the U.S. Supreme Court about whether lying about military honors is protected by free speech rights. Nonetheless, the scholars said the general presumption is that fibs are protected.
And, they note, courts have generally sided with news organizations in stating they have the right to go undercover to expose wrongdoing.
"We all know it's a thinly veiled attempt to eliminate investigative reporting and whistle-blowing regarding abuses in our food production chain," said Randall Wilson of the Iowa Civil Liberties Union of Iowa.
It will be months or years before courts resolve the legality of the "ag gag" bill.
Speaking of criminal trials, former State Representative Ed Fallon will be a defendant tomorrow in a Polk County jury trial. He is the best-known of the Occupy movement protesters arrested on the state capitol grounds in October. Earlier this year, a Polk County judge refused to dismiss trespassing charges against the Occupy activists. Fallon sent out this press release on March 3:
Local Talk-Show Goes to Trial for Occupy Protest
On Monday, March 5th, Ed Fallon will appear before a jury at the Polk County Courthouse regarding the trespassing charge he incurred on October 9th on the grounds of the Iowa State Capitol during a protest associated with the Occupy Wall Street movement. Roughly 35 people were arrested that night, and Fallon's case is the first to be tried by a jury. Fallon is represented by attorney Joseph Glazebrook.
"I maintain my innocence," said Fallon. "People have a right to assemble to redress their grievances. Nowhere on State Capitol grounds is it posted that the public is not allowed there after 11:00 pm. The State's insistence on arresting protesters who were peaceful, non-violent, and raising legitimate concerns about corporate and government corruption was out of line. Furthermore, since Governor Branstad has stated his clear objections to the Occupy Wall Street movement, it reeks of political motivation as well."
Regarding the Polk County Attorney's role in the trial, Fallon questioned the motive behind the prosecution's decision to try each defendant separately or in pairs. "The Polk County Attorney Policy Manual, dated November 1, 1983, states that 'criminal law is obeyed in a free society because it is respected. If the law is made to seem inept or unfair, people will not respect it. And the amount of force needed to enforce the law without respect, and voluntary obedience, destroys a free society and creates a Police State.'"
"I'm not sure if that statement reflects current policy," concluded Fallon, "but if the County Attorney had exercised discretion and fairness with reference to the wisdom of his own policy manual, not only would defendants collectively receive fairer treatment, but thousands of dollars of tax-payer money wouldn't be wasted on multiple trials."
Fallon is a local talk-show host. His program, the Fallon Forum, airs Monday through Thursday from 7:00-8:00 pm on 98.3 FM and online at www.fallonforum.com. Fallon is a former state lawmaker who ran for Governor in 2006 and US Congress in 2008.
It's a big year for criminal trials of interest to Iowa politics-watchers. Two men are now being tried in Polk County district court for allegedly helping facilitate illegal campaign contributions to former Governor Chet Culver's re-election campaign. In February, the Iowa Supreme Court refused to delay their trial.
Defense lawyers for Fort Dodge businessman Steve Daniel and Davenport lawyer Curtis Beason had asked the state high court to consider appeals of several district court pretrial rulings challenging the prosecution of the two men.
Lawyers for Beason contended that two co-special prosecutors, Lawrence Scalise and Richard McConville, should be removed from the case because the state Executive Council exceeded its statutory authority when it appointed them.
The lawyers also allege that a Dubuque casino company's reimbursement of the state's costs of the prosecution violates Iowa's rules of professional conduct for lawyers.
Judge William Price, who will preside at the trial, rejected both claims, pointing out that Peninsula Gaming Partners would be reimbursing the state for the costs of the prosecution and not the prosecutors' law firm.
The court's decision clears the way for Daniel and Beason to be tried on charges stemming from their alleged participation in providing a $25,000 campaign contribution to Culver's campaign in the name of another.
I've heard nothing lately about the criminal case against Zach Edwards, charged with identity theft against Iowa Secretary State Matt Schultz in January. If that case isn't resolved with a plea bargain, the trial may be one of the most interesting court proceedings in Iowa this year.
The most politically important court case of the year will probably be the challenge to several of Branstad's line-item vetoes over Iowa Workforce Development offices. The Iowa Supreme Court heard oral arguments in that case last month and is expected to issue a decision in late spring or early summer.
UPDATE: Zach Edwards pled guilty to a simple misdemeanor and "received a deferred sentence of one year probation, 20 hours of community service within 120 days and a $65 fine. If he completes probation successfully, the simple misdemeanor charge is dismissed without a conviction being entered on his record." Sounds like his attorney Matt Whitaker got him a good deal.