by Mike Wiser (Des Moines Journal)

Animal rights activists say they’ll continue to secretly record operations at Iowa farms even as they demonstrated Thursday at the Capitol against a law that makes those actions illegal.

About 30 protesters aligned with the group Mercy for Animals covered their eyes and mouths with cloth and tape to protest the passage of House File 598 by both chambers this week.

“Consumers have a right to know how their food is being produced and how animals are being treated on factory farms, so they can make informed choices,” said Vandhana Bala, an attorney and spokeswoman for the Chicago-based group. “Mercy for Animals is committed to preventing and exposing cruelty to farmed animals, so we will continue with our undercover cruelty prosecutions nationwide.”

Bala said the bill was “flawed and misdirected” legislation that sets “a dangerous precedent,” which could ultimately undermine the industry itself if questions about cleanliness in preparation are raised.

The bill says a person is guilty of “agricultural production facility fraud” if the person obtains access to the facility by false pretenses, or if the person lies on their employment application or employment agreement with the intent to commit an act not authorized by the owner.

A first-offense conviction carries a penalty of up to one year in prison and a fine ranging from $315 up to $1,875. Second or subsequent offenses are punishable by imprisonment of up to two years and a fine between $625 and $6,250. The bill also contained misdemeanor offenses for people who conspire to commit agricultural production facility fraud or who have knowledge of fraud and harbor, aid or conceal someone who violates the fraud law with intent to prevent apprehension.

“They have a cause,” said Rep. Annette Sweeney, R-Alden, who floor managed the House version of the bill. “I’d love to inform them of the all the positive things we do on our farms. If our animals aren’t happy, our industry suffers.”

The bill that was passed this week is an amended version of what the House passed last year but the Senate didn’t take up, in part, because of concerns over potential conflicts with free speech rights.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, said senators worked with the Iowa Attorney General’s Office to deal with constitutional issues.

“In the end, that will be up to a court to decide,” he said. “”Pretty clearly, the House version wasn’t constitutional, and that’s why we made very significant changes to it.”

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad said Thursday he’ll probably sign the bill, though he still has to thoroughly review it and will do so after his two-day visit to the Quad-Cities.

“I think so. I have to review that bill. We just got it,” he said in Davenport. “Generally speaking, I think it’s important that we protect farmers from people who are trying to illegally disrupt their operations,”

The governor said a criminal penalty is appropriate when people “lie and mislead and give people false information in order to try to disrupt the farming operations in this agricultural state.”