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Utah's Right to Know
Donald Meyers
Donald W. Meyers writes about open-government issues for The Salt Lake Tribune. He is also the site manager of utahsright.com, the Tribune's online database of public records. He is also a member of the Society of Professional Journalists' National Freedom of Information Committee and sits on the board of directors of the Utah Foundation for Open Government.

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Utah not only state with ag-gag law to stop photography of farms, livestock

While Amy Meyer nearly became the first Utahn to be prosecuted for taking pictures of an "agricultural operation", her case is a reminder that other state have — or are considering — so-called "ag-gag" bills.

Meyer was facing charges under a 2012 law that made it illegal to photograph or video record agricultural operations — farms, ranches, slaughterhouses, just to name a few — while trespassing or entering the premises illegally. That last part was inserted in the bill after critics said the proposed law would have had kids on school field trips hauled off to jail if they took a picture of the farm they were touring.

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Meyer was initially charged by Draper police after making a video of the Dale T. Smith & Sons Meat Packing Co. in February. The charges were dropped — but the city’s prosecutor still retains the right to refile the charge — in April after Meyer’s plight went national.

But Utah is not the only state that has passed such legislation.

Iowa passed a similar law, except its measure goes further in restricting the photos. It makes it a crime not just to take the pictures, but to merely possess them as well. That, as animal-rights attorney Dara Lovitz said, deters journalists from publishing pictures of animal abuse they might receive from whistleblowers.

Mississippi also has a law, while Nebraska, Indiana, Arkansas and Tennessee are considering similar bills. California lawmakers rejected a bill that would have required people who take pictures of animal abuse to turn over the images to authorities within 48 hours.

The bills’ proponents argue that the bills are needed to protect farmers, ranchers and food processors from baseless allegations or misrepresentation. At a 2010 Ag Conference, Utah Farm Bureau Federation President Randy Parker accused the media of sensationalizing farm practices, such as how his father used to remove sheep testicles with his teeth.

But critics see the measures as attempts to muzzle whistleblowers who point out animals being abused in farms or sick animals being processed for food. Under such a law, Upton Sinclair, who wrote the book The Jungle about abuses in the meatpacking industry, would have gone to jail instead of being the inspiration for the Pure Food and Drug Act.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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