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Four California activists who photographed a Circle Four pig farm in Iron County in September may be the first defendants prosecuted under Utah's "ag-gag" law.

"They wanted to document the 'trail of tears,' if you will, from Utah to the slaughterhouse in Los Angeles," said California-based attorney T. Matthew Phillips, who represents all four defendants. "They are standing on the roadside and they took some pictures of the farm."

Robert Penney, 64; Sarah Jane Hardt, 43; Harold Weiss, 34; and Bryan Monell, 50, all were charged in Iron County Justice Court with one count each of class B misdemeanor criminal trespassing on agricultural land, and agricultural operation interference (the so-called "ag-gag" law) in late September.

Hardt said in an interview with The Tribune on Tuesday that the group, who are with the Farm Animals Rights Movements, were aware that Utah had an "ag-gag" law — which makes undercover investigations and surreptitious recording of animal agricultural operations a crime — and were planning to take photos of the farm from public areas. She said they were planning to document the trek that truckloads of pigs took from the Utah farm to a downtown Los Angeles slaughterhouse.

"The purpose of our trip was to photograph the farm legally," she said, "and to follow and track the pigs on their journey back. It's about a nine-hour journey."

Hardt, a professional photographer, declined to discuss what photos she took on Sept. 24. But Phillips said Tuesday that his clients never went onto the farm's property and only took photos of the buildings.

Phillips said someone alerted local authorities about the group near the Milford farm, and they were detained by deputies from the Beaver County and Iron County sheriff's offices for five hours. They were never arrested, Hardt said, but they were given citations.

"All of us looked at each other and said, 'What is this?'" she said. "Interfering with agriculture? None of us knew what it was. When we get back to L.A., that's when [Phillips] tells us, 'That's ag gag.' "

The group is scheduled to make their first appearance in the justice court in Parowan on Thursday. Hardt said they won't appear in court, but are planning to mail in their not guilty pleas. She said she hopes their case goes to trial.

"We didn't violate the law in any way," she said. "It's a very odd law ... It's absolutely absurd. It's completely absurd. The fact is, it's such a violation of our First Amendment right."

Prosecutors were not immediately available for comment on Tuesday.

Penney, Hardt, Weiss and Monell may be the first in Utah to be prosecuted under the "ag-gag" law, which was passed by the Utah Legislature in 2012.

Amy Meyer was arrested and charged in February 2013 after she stood on public property next to a slaughterhouse in Draper and recorded images with her cell phone, including one of workers pushing what appeared to be a sick or injured cow with a bulldozer. But the charge against her was dismissed about three months after the charge was dismissed.

Prosecutor Benjamin Rasmussen said at a May 2013 hearing in Draper's justice court that his office moved to dismiss the case after Meyer provided video footage showing that she was on public property during at least some of the time she was recording the slaughterhouse.

Meyer is one of eight plaintiffs who have filed a federal lawsuit challenging the law, which alleges that it impairs public debate about animal welfare, food safety and labor issues on modern farms by criminalizing covert investigations and videography.

"Utah's 'ag-gag' law is unconstitutional," Phillips said Tuesday, "Because it targets only the would-be whistleblowers and benefits only the special interests."

Phillips said his four clients are planning to file a civil lawsuit against the Iron and Beaver county sheriffs' offices for unlawful detention.

Twitter: @jm_miller

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