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Utah's 'ag gag' law makes free speech a crime

Published August 10, 2013 1:01 am
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

On Aug. 2,The Tribune reported that "consumer concerns" prompted Circle Four Farms and 459 other farms operated by the world's largest pork supplier to phase out impossibly small cages that prohibit breeding pigs from turning around or moving ("Pig farm to phase out tight cages").

The article noted that the corporation, Smithfield Farms, said that it made the decision "based on input from its customers."

So, where did that "customer input" come from?

The public learned about Smithfield Farms' inhumane conditions after a month-long undercover investigation in 2010 conducted by The Humane Society. That investigation revealed that Smithfield Farms had crammed pigs inside gestation crates that were so small the animals were unable even to turn around (the poor animals were so desperate some of them bit bars incessantly, coating the front bars with their own blood).

In short, an undercover operation revealed inhumane conditions and informed consumers. Consumers were then able to pressure the world's largest pork supplier — Smithfield is a $13 billion global company — to phase out small cages, making conditions better for breeding sows.

Isn't that the right and power of every consumer? Isn't that both the "marketplace of ideas" and "free market" working at their open and informed best?

The Utah Legislature does not think so. Legislators think that you, the citizen/consumer, should never learn about conditions inside factory farms, or how your food is produced.

To silence these undercover investigations and corresponding media coverage that contribute to consumer knowledge and public debate about animal treatment and food safety, the Utah Legislature passed Utah's so-called "ag gag" bill. Now, under Utah law, anyone who takes "unauthorized" video or photos of agricultural operations could face up to a year in jail.

The Utah Legislature, in discussing the bill, made no bones about the purpose of the law. The law is designed to protect speech that is favorable to the agricultural industry, while preventing whistleblowers, journalists and members of the general public from using speech that exposes the agricultural industry in any way the industry perceives is unfavorable.

Utah's ag gag law is the only statute in Utah that protects a specific industry from whistleblowing, investigation and journalism activity. Undercover investigations of childcare facilities, nursing homes, financial institutions, churches or any other group are still permitted.

But, the Utah Legislature has so soundly protected the agricultural industry from inquiry, the industry can now rest assured that there will never be another Smithfield Farms.

And Utah takes its new ag gag law very seriously. In February, Amy Meyer stood on public land and used her cell phone to film treatment of cows at Draper's Dale Smith & Sons Meat Packing. She was horrified to see workers trying to lift a sick cow on a forklift (a disheartening video available on YouTube).

While Meyer was standing on public property, the Draper City police (Draper Mayor Darrell Smith is co-owner of the meat packing company) arrived and questioned Meyer. She was charged with a class B misdemeanor under Utah's ag gag law. After a firestorm of media coverage, prosecutors eventually dropped charges against Meyer.

But, Utah citizens and journalists still have everything to fear. Utah has criminalized a certain kind of speech and will prosecute anyone who exposes agricultural activities in a negative light. That is why, thankfully, the Animal Legal Defense Fund and others filed suit in federal court challenging Utah's law as unconstitutional.

Hopefully, they will be successful. Until then, the Utah Legislature will only permit us to hear the most glowing, positive messages that the agricultural industry has carefully marketed for our consumption. It's a crime to say anything else.

Kathleen Weron Toth is an attorney in private practice in Salt Lake City.






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