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Animal Rights Groups Challenge Ag-Gag Law

By Zaineb Mohammed Thu Jul. 25, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

Animal rights activists filed a civil lawsuit on Monday contesting the constitutionality of a Utah law that bans recording at an agricultural facility without the owner's consent. The suit, which asks the court to strike down a law that Gov. Gary Herbert (R) signed in March 2012, is the first challenge to this type of "ag gag" law.

The plaintiffs in the suit include PETA, the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), environmental journalist Will Potter, and animal rights activist Amy Meyer. Meyer was charged with violating Utah's law in Februaryafter she filmed a tractor carrying away a downed cow outside a meatpacking facility. She was the first person to face prosecution under an ag gag law in the US. The charges against her were later dropped because she was standing on public property while filming, but Meyer wants to prevent future charges against her and other activists.

"Utah should be ashamed of itself for passing a law to keep animal abuse a secret," Jeff Kerr, general counsel for PETA, told Mother Jones. "The Utah legislature should be passing laws to put cameras in slaughterhouses and factory farms to expose and end abuse, as opposed to keeping it secret to protect their profits."

Utah was one of four states to pass laws criminalizing whistleblowing on agricultural facilities in 2012. In a recent feature for Mother Jones,Ted Genoways investigated the spread of so-called "ag gag" laws, which have been introduced in 12 more states in 2013. A total of eight states have now passed this type of legislation.

In Iowa, the law prohibits people from obtaining employment under false pretenses, like providing a false name or lying about employment history, in order to film animal abuse. But Utah's law is even stricter, making it illegal to seek employment at an agricultural facility with the intention of creating a recording inside the facility, even if the prospective employee does not provide false information on the job application. Justin Marceau, a lawyer for ALDF, said the groups decided to challenge Utah's law first because the charges brought against Meyer earlier this year show that "police and prosecutors are serious about enforcing it" in the state.

The complaint, which names Utah Attorney General John Swallow and Gov. Herbertas defendants, alleges that the law's primary purpose is to "stifle political debate about modern animal agriculture by criminalizing the creation of videos or photos from within the industry made without the express consent of the industry." The law also prevents the public and government officials from "learning about violations of laws and regulations designed to ensure a safe food supply and to minimize animal cruelty," the complaint argues.

The plaintiffs say the law violates the Constitution. "The statute takes a content- or viewpoint-based discrimination, singling out certain types of speech or messages for less protection," said Marceau, who is also a constitutional law professor at the University of Denver.


A spokesperson for the Utah Attorney General's Office told Mother Jones that Swallow had not yet had a chance to review the complaint and could not comment on it. Herbert's office also declined to comment.

The plaintiffs argue that Utah's ag gag law could have consequences beyond preventing the exposure of animal abuse. "These laws have implications for union organizers and exposing other kinds of abuses that may go on behind closed doors," said Kerr. "The law as drafted would prevent someone from filming bad employment practices or unsafe working conditions on factory farms and slaughterhouses."

Plaintiff Will Potter, who first posted Meyer's video online, said that the law could also affect journalists covering the issue. "Ag gag puts my sources at risk of prosecution for speaking with me or providing me their footage," Potter told Mother Jones. "No journalist should have to choose between not reporting a story that is of national concern and putting a source in jail."

Proponents of the law have argued that this is a private property issue and that activists should not be allowed to record on someone's property without their consent. But the plaintiffs say the law is designed to prevent the exposure of abuse at agricultural facilities. "The reality is we celebrate undercover investigations in all sorts of contexts; if somebody gets into a kitchen of a restaurant and shows there's gross things going on, we're really happy to learn that," said Marceau. "Here we have the agricultural industry saying, 'We're special, we shouldn't be subjected to this investigative reporting treatment.'"


Mon Jun. 17, 2013 6:20 AM EDT

Last Thursday, The Daily Show did a segment on the wave of "ag gag" laws sweeping the country. The laws aim to prevent whistleblowing on animal cruelty, but supporters of the legislation claim that videos released by animal rights groups are heavily edited, often just document standard industry practice, and that the production of undercover videos is motivated by profit-seeking animal rights groups. "Animal activism is a huge business…one that's almost somewhat completely dwarfed by the US agriculture industry," says Al Madrigal during the segment.

Watch the segment here:


And read Ted Genoways' cover story, "Gagged By Big Ag," in the July/August issue of Mother Jones.


By Zaineb Mohammed Wed Jun. 26, 2013 5:48 PM EDT

Animal rights activist Amy Meyer was the first person to be prosecuted under an ag gag law for a disturbing scene she caught on tape in February at the Dale T. Smith and Sons Meat Packing Co. in Draper, Utah.

Meyer was standing on a public easement outside the barbed wire fence that encloses the slaughterhouse and recorded a tractor carrying away a downer cow andflesh coming out of a chute on the side of a building. She was approached by the manager of the company who told her she had to leave, citing Utah's ag gag law: "If you read the rights here and the laws in Utah, you can't film an agricultural property without my consent."

Check out Meyer's footage, first published this week by environmental blogger Will Potter:





Utah's law, enacted in March 2012, makes it illegal to record, "an image of, or sound from, an agricultural operation while the person is committing criminal trespass." Like many other states' ag gag laws, Utah also forbids obtaining, "access to an agricultural operation under false pretenses." As Ted Genoways' reveals in a recent investigation for Mother Jones, laws criminalizing whistleblowing on Big Ag have been sweeping the country in the past few years. Ag gag laws were introduced in 12 states just this year, and are currently pending in Pennsylvania and North Carolina. Check out MoJo's map to see where these bills have passed and failed.

Meyer used to pass by the slaughterhouse on her way to volunteer at a local animal sanctuary in Draper, where the mayor is a co-owner of the meat-packing plant, and felt compelled to, "do more to fight what's happening to cows inside factory farms and slaughterhouses," she toldMother Jones. After she filmed the downer cow incident and then a confrontation with Smith and Sons's manager, police arrived to question Meyer, but did not detain her. She was later charged with "agricultural operation interference." As shown by the video, Meyer was standing on public property while recording, which was why the prosecutor ultimately dropped the charges on April 30, after Potter publicized the case.

On May 18, hundreds of local activists gathered outside the slaughterhouse to protest the state's ag gag law. A spokesperson for the plant told ABC News, "the meat processing facility is inspected daily and has a good record for animal care," and the company maintained in a written statement that their "animal handling and treatment practices are humane and responsible."

However, as Meyer points out to the plant's manager in the video, more transparency is in order: "Why are you concerned about being filmed, if you think this is a legitimate business?"




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