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A federal judge on Friday struck down Utah's "ag gag" law, siding with animal-rights activists that the statute — which prohibits unauthorized filming of agricultural operations — violates free-speech rights.

U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby made the ruling on a case in which two animal-rights groups and an activist sued the state over the "agriculture operation interference" law, approved in 2012 by the Legislature. The law prohibited lying to gain access to a livestock operation, made secret recording illegal and required permission from the owner for someone who wishes to film.

Animal activists praised Shelby's ruling on Friday, with the Utah Animal Rights Coalition calling the decision a "victory" for animals and the First Amendment.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund, which was a plaintiff in the case, said in a statement that this was the first lawsuit filed in the nation to challenge ag-gag laws, which they say criminalizes undercover investigations by activists or journalists.

"These unconstitutional laws will fall like dominoes," Stephen Wells, executive director of the legal defense fund, said in a statement. "Ag-gag laws are flagrant attempts to hide animal cruelty from the American people, and they unfairly target activists trying to serve the public's interest."

Daniel Burton, spokesman for the Utah attorney general's office, said Friday that state attorneys are reviewing the opinion and are "considering our options."

In his 31-page ruling, Shelby wrote that while the agricultural industry is "crucially important to the continued viability of the nation," it also is important to safeguard citizen's Constitutional rights.

"Utah undoubtedly has an interest in addressing perceived threats to the state agricultural industry," the federal judge wrote, "and as history shows, it has a variety of constitutionally permissible tools at its disposal to do so. Suppressing broad swaths of protected speech without justification, however, is not one of them."

State attorneys had argued that the First Amendment doesn't guarantee free-speech rights if a person is on private property, and also argued that the law protects the safety of animals or workers.

Shelby rejected both arguments, noting that when lawmakers passed the law in 2012, they didn't express safety concerns — but instead said the law targeted "a group of people that want to put us out of business" and "vegetarian people that [are] trying to kill the animal industry."

The lawsuit was brought by two organizations — the Animal Legal Defense Fund and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals — along with Amy Meyer, who in 2013 became the first person charged in Utah with violating the ag-gag law. Meyer had been on public property when she used her cellphone to record a Draper meat-packing plant, but prosecutors still charged her with the class B misdemeanor.

The charge was dropped shortly after it was filed.

Meyer said in a statement Friday that she filmed a sick cow that was being pushed with a front-end loader.

"I was shocked when I was the one charged with a crime instead of that animal's abusers," she said. "It should never be a crime to tell the story of an animal who is being abused and killed, even if it's for food. Today's court ruling is a vindication for anyone who stands up for what's right and tells the truth."

In 2015, four California activists were charged under Utah's ag-gag statute while they documented the journey that truckloads of pigs took from a Utah farm to a downtown Los Angeles slaughterhouse. Prosecutors eventually asked for those charges to be dropped as well, though three of the activists eventually pleaded no contest to misdemeanor criminal trespass.

jmiller@sltrib.com Twitter: @jm_miller

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