Courts • Group says law impairs public debate on animal welfare, food safety and labor issues on industrial farms.
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Two animal rights groups and six individuals filed a civil lawsuit Monday in U.S. District Court challenging Utah's "ag gag" law, which they say is overly broad and discriminates against free speech about activities of animal agricultural operations.
The plaintiffs says the "agricultural operation interference" law, adopted in 2012 by the Utah Legislature, impairs public debate about animal welfare, food safety and labor issues on modern industrial farms by criminalizing undercover investigations and videography.
Eight plaintiffs filed the lawsuit: the Animal Legal Defense Fund; People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA); news journal CounterPunch; activist Amy Meyer; author Will Potter; animal investigation consultant Daniel Hauff; animal agriculture scholar James McWilliams; and local blogger and activist Jesse Fruhwirth. They are represented by Stewart Gollan of the Utah Legal Clinic and three California attorneys.
Defendants are Gov. Gary Herbert and Attorney General John Swallow. Paul Murphy, spokesman for the Utah Attorney General's Office, said the office had not yet seen the lawsuit and could not comment.
Gollan said that other states, largely through the efforts of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, have adopted similar laws that limit scrutiny of industries that are the subject of public debate; in addition to agriculture, that has included mining operations, he said.
"These kinds of laws run counter to what we are supposed to have in this country, which is a lively and informed public debate, and these laws tend to make the debate one-sided," Gollan said. "I think if you have nothing to hide you wouldn't be concerned about the activities of your business being made public."
The lawsuit notes the storied history of journalistic exposés that triggered enforcement, reform and debate that began with Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle," which focused on unfair labor and animal cruelty in the meat-packing industry in the early 1900s. Sinclair's work contributed to enactment of the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act.
Utah's law makes it a class A misdemeanor crime, with a penalty of up to a year in jail, to record photos or sounds of an agricultural operation without the owner's consent.
That "has the effect of criminalizing this historically celebrated and important form of speech," the federal lawsuit states. "A law that prohibits the recording of images or sounds during certain activities be it a political rally, or an unsafe or inhumane workplace is content discriminatory."
The net effect is to prevent the public and officials from learning about violations of laws and regulations aimed at ensuring a safe food supply and minimizing animal cruelty, the lawsuit states. Utah's law also allows the animal agricultural industry to potentially provide a "misleading" account of its operations. It points to information on the Utah Department of Agriculture as typical of the one-sided information the law perpetuates.
According to the lawsuit, the Animal Legal Defense Fund said it has put on hold a planned investigation into one operation in Utah because of fear of criminal prosecution; PETA also said it is "interested and willing" to conduct an investigation in Utah but has not because of the new law. Among other investigations, a 2008 PETA action led to the first-ever felony convictions of a factory farmer for abusing turkeys.
Meyer was arrested and charged with agricultural interference the first charged under the new law in February as 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. The case was later dismissed, but Meyer was traumatized and fears future arrests because of the law, the filing says. Other plaintiffs say the law inhibits their ability to either investigate or report on investigations at animal agricultural operations.
The law makes conducting investigations and reporting findings "virtually impossible," the group contends, and is unique in targeting "a specific category [of] whistle-blowing or investigative journalism activity. Undercover investigations of, for example, childcare facilities, nursing homes, and banks are still permitted."
Numerous lawmakers who spoke in favor of the law made disparaging comments about animal rights activists and groups, even describing them as "terrorists," the lawsuit states.