A lawsuit filed in Utah on Monday is the first big legal challenge to an ag-gag law.
Animal welfare groups, journalists, and a woman who was briefly charged with violating Utah’s year-old Agricultural Operation Interference law sued the state in U.S. District Court, alleging that the ag-gag law violates the U.S. Constitution.
The law makes it a misdemeanor to record images or sound while inside an agricultural operation without the owner’s consent. It also makes it a crime to apply for work at a slaughterhouse or farm with the intention of making such recordings, or to obtain access to such an operation “under false pretenses.” The legislation was approved by state lawmakers amid a surge in such laws nationwide.
“In essence the law criminalizes undercover investigations and videography at slaughterhouses, factory farms, and other agricultural operations, thus ‘gagging’ speech that is critical of industrial animal agriculture,” according to the 41-page complaint filed in U.S. District Court.
The Animal Legal Defense Fund, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, CounterPunch magazine and five individuals claim the law violates their rights to free speech and equal protection. They want a federal judge to strike down the law.
Supporters of the law argue that it is simply intended to protect “property rights,” the AP reports:
“It has nothing to do with animals — it’s people trespassing on farms” to make recordings, said state Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, a cattle operator who also breeds race horses. “If people can sneak onto anybody’s property, then we don’t have any rights.”
But the first person charged with violating the law wasn’t trespassing. Amy Meyer, one of the litigants in the suit, was charged after she filmed a cow being pushed by a bulldozer at Dale T. Smith and Sons Meatpacking. Charges against her were later dropped after a prosecutor reviewed the video footage and concluded that she made her film while standing on nearby public property.
Another litigant is Will Potter, an activist journalist. From his blog:
Utah’s law, and others like it, directly place both me and my sources at risk. There’s a long history of investigative journalism in this country based on exactly the type of research and whistleblowing that these laws criminalize. What if Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle were released today, accompanied by a YouTube video? He would undoubtedly be prosecuted under ag-gag.
Even if journalists themselves escape prosecution, ag-gag laws would make it impossible to report stories that are vitally important to the public. Whistleblowers and undercover investigators shine a light on criminal activity, and also standard industry practices. Without them, there is no meaningful window into animal agriculture; there would be no insight into the industry except for what the industry approves.
The Animal Legal Defense Fund produced this video explaining the case: