Animal Rights Groups Challenge Utah's Ag Gag Law

| Thu Jul. 25, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

Animal rights activists filed a civil lawsuit on Monday contesting the constitutionality of a Utah law that bans recording at an agricultural facility without the owner's consent. The suit, which asks the court to strike down a law that Gov. Gary Herbert (R) signed in March 2012, is the first challenge to this type of "ag gag" law. 

The plaintiffs in the suit include PETA, the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), environmental journalist Will Potter, and animal rights activist Amy Meyer. Meyer was charged with violating Utah's law in February after she filmed a tractor carrying away a downed cow outside a meatpacking facility. She was the first person to face prosecution under an ag gag law in the US. The charges against her were later dropped because she was standing on public property while filming, but Meyer wants to prevent future charges against her and other activists.

"Utah should be ashamed of itself for passing a law to keep animal abuse a secret," Jeff Kerr, general counsel for PETA, told Mother Jones. "The Utah legislature should be passing laws to put cameras in slaughterhouses and factory farms to expose and end abuse, as opposed to keeping it secret to protect their profits." 

Utah was one of four states to pass laws criminalizing whistleblowing on agricultural facilities in 2012. In a recent feature for Mother Jones, Ted Genoways investigated the spread of so-called "ag gag" laws, which have been introduced in 12 more states in 2013. A total of eight states have now passed this type of legislation.

In Iowa, the law prohibits people from obtaining employment under false pretenses, like providing a false name or lying about employment history, in order to film animal abuse. But Utah's law is even stricter, making it illegal to seek employment at an agricultural facility with the intention of creating a recording inside the facility, even if the prospective employee does not provide false information on the job application. Justin Marceau, a lawyer for ALDF, said the groups decided to challenge Utah's law first because the charges brought against Meyer earlier this year show that "police and prosecutors are serious about enforcing it" in the state.

The complaint, which names Utah Attorney General John Swallow and Gov. Herbert as defendants, alleges that the law's primary purpose is to "stifle political debate about modern animal agriculture by criminalizing the creation of videos or photos from within the industry made without the express consent of the industry." The law also prevents the public and government officials from "learning about violations of laws and regulations designed to ensure a safe food supply and to minimize animal cruelty," the complaint argues.

The plaintiffs say the law violates the Constitution. "The statute takes a content- or viewpoint-based discrimination, singling out certain types of speech or messages for less protection," said Marceau, who is also a constitutional law professor at the University of Denver.

Get Mother Jones by Email - Free. Like what you're reading? Get the best of MoJo three times a week.