Curtis Vollmar: Is free speech dead in rural Utah?

“Do you realize you’re not wanted in this community?”

No, those are not the words of the late Brian Dennehy portraying Sheriff Will Teasle in “First Blood.” Those are the words of Sgt. Warren Woolsey of the Beaver County Sheriff’s Office.

On Pioneer Day 2022, I joined several other concerned citizens at a public park maintained by Beaver City to peacefully leaflet, gather petition signatures and engage in conversation with local residents about the cruel practices of Smithfield Foods and a high-profile criminal trial involving the rescue of two piglets from this factory farm. However, we were met with hostility from Beaver County officials who cited me for disorderly conduct despite doing nothing more than having conversations with the public. I’m now being forced to stand trial myself.

All Americans cherish our constitutional rights to freedom of speech and assembly, but Beaver County violated these fundamental rights. Sgt. Woolsey and Deputy Sheriff Lonnie Laws repeatedly interrupted my outreach efforts and even went as far as to tell passersby “don’t talk with these people” and that “these are the people that are trying to shut down Smithfield.” Woolsey made it clear that it was the content of my speech that he didn’t like; violating his sworn oath to defend the Constitution. I recorded the entire incident and submitted the video to the popular police accountability YouTube channel “Audit the Audit.” That video has gone viral, garnering 2.7 million views, with many calling for the officers involved to be stripped of their badges.

Smithfield Foods has a significant presence in Beaver County, with a massive factory that sends 1.2 million pigs to their death annually. This operation has been linked to numerous environmental and labor violations, as well as an expose of animal welfare violations in The New York Times in 2017. The expose and rescue of two piglets resulted in a felony prosecution of two other activists. A jury found them not guilty this past October. That felony prosecution along with the incident involving myself highlight a larger issue of corporate influence over small town U.S.A.

The Salt Lake Tribune has reported that 25% of Beaver County residents rely on Smithfield for employment and that Smithfield is in the process of significantly downsizing the operation. While I sympathize with jobs being lost, I do not believe a multi-billion dollar corporation controlled by the Chinese government should have such a chokehold over local residents to the point that local officials declare a state of emergency when this company pursues greater profits elsewhere.

The actions of the Beaver County officers were a clear violation of my First Amendment rights, and it is disheartening to see corporate influence at play in the local government. It is crucial that we hold elected officials and law enforcement agencies accountable and not be deterred by government intimidation or corporate influence. This should concern not just animal rights activists, but anyone who cares about preserving free speech.

All of this does beg many questions. If Beaver County officials are so fixated on silencing activists raising concerns and asking questions about a corporation, what is this corporation trying to hide? What is the incentive for the Beaver officials to silence people? Should international multi-billion dollar corporations have this much control in rural Utah? Should jobs and money be the end all?

It sure appears that the environment, human and animal rights violations, and free speech all take a backseat to corporate power in Beaver County. If it can happen in one county, it can happen in any.

Curtis Vollmar

Curtis Vollmar is a community organizer with the animal rights network, Direct Action Everywhere (DxE).