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While showing gruesome video of abused farm animals taken by undercover activists, animal rights groups called Friday for Utah Gov. Gary Herbert to veto a bill that would outlaw such snooping.
"If this bill is signed into law, we will challenge it all the way to the Supreme Court," Nathan Runkle, executive director of Mercy for Animals, said at a Salt Lake City news conference.
The Legislature this week passed HB187 by Rep. John Mathis, R-Vernal, a veterinarian. It would ban photographing farm animals or operations without permission or "under false pretenses," and could lead to jail sentences of up to a year and/or fines of up to $2,500 for violators. Animal rights groups call it the "ag-gag" bill for seeking to outlaw undercover investigations.
"This bill is a thinly veiled attempt to shield animal abusers from public scrutiny," Runkle said. "We feel that it is blatantly unconstitutional and a violation of freedom of speech and freedom of press. This law is an outrage, and we urge Governor Herbert to veto this dangerous bill."
Allyson Isom, spokeswoman for Herbert, said he has taken no position on the bill, and that it is under review.
Randy Parker, CEO of the Utah Farm Bureau, said ranchers worry that activists can cajole disgruntled employees "to manufacture circumstances to discredit animal agriculture operations. I would argue that it's not for the animals, but it is politically motivated for their anti-meat agenda." He said the industry abhors animal abuse.
Sen. Dave Hinkins, R-Orangeville, a rancher, said in Senate debate that it should be no surprise that ranching kills animals to eat. "That's what hamburgers are: a dead cow. ... We're getting a bad rap for this. And it's vegetarian people who are trying to kill the industry" through undercover videos. He said the bill protects property rights of ranchers.
But Runkle pointed to lists of people sent to prison for abuse or producing unsafe food at farms and slaughterhouses because of undercover video shot by activists.
He screened for news reporters' videos of live, unwanted chicks thrown into grinders; wounded, bleeding animals left to die slowly; repeated bludgeoning of some animals; some being dismembered while still alive and writhing; and some animals being mutilated.
"If animals are being produced for food, they should be protected against the worst abuses," Runkle said.
"Whistle-blowers and investigators really have only one meaningful tool … cameras. Without cameras, they are unable to show and prove the type of corruption and abuse that oftentimes takes place," he added.
He presented a statement from 27 national groups opposed to similar laws being considered by state legislatures, including the Humane Society of the United States, the National Press Photographers Association, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.
Suzanne McMillan, director of the farm animal welfare campaign of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, also called Friday for Herbert to veto the bill.
"This bill sends a message that Utah farmers have something to hide. Responsible farmers should invite transparency," she said. "We hope the governor will do the right thing and veto this ill-conceived bill."
Parker, with the Farm Bureau, said, "We believe in transparency, but transparency goes both ways," and gaining a job only to shoot video for activists is not transparent.