Quantcast
Get breaking news alerts via email

Click here to manage your alerts
(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cattle graze in a field north of Huntington in central Utah's Emery County on July 19, 2012.
Judge won’t toss suit challenging Utah’s ‘ag gag’ law
Courts » But he kicks out journalists and academics from lawsuit.
First Published Aug 07 2014 02:15 pm • Last Updated Aug 07 2014 09:40 pm

A federal lawsuit challenging Utah’s "ag gag" law, which activists say discriminates against free speech and discourages covert investigations into animal agricultural operations in the state, will proceed, a judge ruled Thursday.

U.S. District Judge Robert J. Shelby declined to toss the lawsuit despite a motion to dismiss from the state, who alleged the plaintiffs had not suffered any real harm as a result of the statute, which they said is narrowly tailored and lawful.

Marissa Lang is attending the hearing

Join the Discussion
Post a Comment

Utah’s law makes undercover investigations and surreptitious recording of animal agricultural operations a class A misdemeanor crime, with a penalty of up to a year in jail.

Shelby, who said the case’s main points will hinge on the law’s supposed violation of the First Amendment, ruled that journalists and academics who had filed suit did not have proper standing to challenge the law — meaning they failed to show how they would or had suffered direct injury as a result of the statute.

But activists and investigators, including a local woman who was arrested and charged with agricultural interference, were cleared to proceed.

It was a win for the plaintiffs who allege 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 farms by criminalizing covert investigations and videography.

"I’m very excited," said Amy Meyer, an activist who was the first, and only, person to be arrested and charged under the law. "My case demonstrates that these ‘ag gag’ laws can be used to intimidate people out of their legal rights."

The lawsuit is the first of its kind in the nation to challenge the constitutionality of such laws, which the plaintiffs argue violates the First Amendment and Equal Protection Clause of the federal Constitution.

Attorneys for the state told the judge that the case should be thrown out because none of the plaintiffs face a threat of immediate prosecution, and the law is narrowly tailored enough such that it does not infringe on any legitimate investigations.

"The law was passed in response to a specific concern ... and so based on that we believe the law can withstand constitutional review," Assistant Attorney General Daniel Widdison said after the hearing. "We don’t necessarily have to disavow targeting animal activists. That said, the law was designed not necessarily to target anyone but to protect this vital Utah industry."


story continues below
story continues below

In February 2013, Meyer was arrested 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 charge was later dismissed, but Meyer has alleged she was traumatized and fears future arrests because of the law, creating a "chilling effect" on her freedom of speech.

Other plaintiffs have said the law inhibits their ability to either investigate or report on investigations at animal agricultural operations.

Eight plaintiffs filed the lawsuit against Gov. Gary Herbert and the Utah attorney general’s office: Meyer; the Animal Legal Defense Fund; People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA); news journal CounterPunch; author Will Potter; animal investigation consultant Daniel Hauff; animal agriculture scholar James McWilliams; and local blogger and activist Jesse Fruhwirth.

The lawsuit notes the 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.

After Thursday’s hearing, CounterPunch, Will Potter, MCWilliams and Fruhwirth will no longer be parties in the suit.

But, lawyers said Thursday, because the other plaintiffs, and the case itself survived, the law will still be forced to withstand judicial scrutiny.

"There were legislators on the floor calling animal protection organizations ‘terrorists’ and ‘jack wagons’ and this was aimed to silence the speech of animal rights and animal protection organizations," said PETA’s attorney Matt Strugar. "If this was a legitimate law, they wouldn’t have passed it to protect a single industry and to single out one group critical of that industry. ... This is here to silence animal rights activists."

The state had not immediately decided Thursday whether it would appeal Shelby’s ruling.

Several organizations have filed briefs in support of the plaintiffs including the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and several national and local media organizations, including The Salt Lake Tribune.

mlang@sltrib.com

Twitter: @Marissa_Jae



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

Top Reader Comments Read All Comments Post a Comment
Click here to read all comments   Click here to post a comment


About Reader Comments


Reader comments on sltrib.com are the opinions of the writer, not The Salt Lake Tribune. We will delete comments containing obscenities, personal attacks and inappropriate or offensive remarks. Flagrant or repeat violators will be banned. If you see an objectionable comment, please alert us by clicking the arrow on the upper right side of the comment and selecting "Flag comment as inappropriate". If you've recently registered with Disqus or aren't seeing your comments immediately, you may need to verify your email address. To do so, visit disqus.com/account.
See more about comments here.
Staying Connected
Videos
Jobs
Contests and Promotions
  • Search Obituaries
  • Place an Obituary

  • Search Cars
  • Search Homes
  • Search Jobs
  • Search Marketplace
  • Search Legal Notices

  • Other Services
  • Advertise With Us
  • Subscribe to the Newspaper
  • Access your e-Edition
  • Frequently Asked Questions
  • Contact a newsroom staff member
  • Access the Trib Archives
  • Privacy Policy
  • Missing your paper? Need to place your paper on vacation hold? For this and any other subscription related needs, click here or call 801.204.6100.