Is Utah’s Ag-Gag Law Unconstitutional?

A new lawsuit claims the state’s farm protection legislation violates the First Amendment.

ag-gag lawsuit Utah

The Dale Smith Meatpacking Company in Draper, Utah. (Photo: Google Maps)

Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

The Dale Smith Meatpacking Company in Draper, Utah, a suburb of Salt Lake City, sits alongside the freeway, just up the street from a neatly planned subdivision. There’s an office building across the frontage road from the plant, part of a larger complex. Back on February 8, Amy Meyer was standing near that road, camera in hand, filming what was going on at the slaughterhouse.

“I pass by this slaughterhouse every weekend on my way to volunteer at a local farm animal sanctuary,” she told me in a phone interview. “The slaughterhouse is right off of the interstate, and it’s always bothered me driving by there every week. So one day when I was done volunteering I thought I would drive around and see what the other side looked like—to see if it was a good place where we could do protests, to see if there was anything I could see so I could show people what was happening in our own backyard—it was just sort of a random day.”

As she tells it, an employee asked her to leave, saying that what she was doing, shooting footage of the plant, was illegal. Meyer refused on the grounds that she was on public property and thereby neither trespassing nor violating the state’s farm protection or ag-gag law. The police were called, and “there were seven or eight cop cars that showed up on the scene within minutes,” Meyer recalls. She was arrested and later charged under the “agricultural operation interference” law that passed in Utah last year—the first criminal charges levied against an animal rights activist or journalist since the debate over farm protection laws was restarted in earnest with the passage of Iowa’s own bill last March.

The charges against Meyer were dropped, but the 25-year-old activist is now a plaintiff in a lawsuit contesting the constitutionality of the Utah law that was filed this week by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF). Joining her and the two animal rights groups in the case are journalist Will Potter (who first reported Meyer’s arrest), the website CounterPunch, animal investigation consultant Daniel Hauff, professor James McWilliams and activist Jesse Fruhwirth.

Justin Marceau, a constitutional law professor at University of Denver and the lead attorney on the case, says, “We think that these laws all across the country discriminate against certain content and certain viewpoints and that’s sort of the core principal of what the First Amendment protects both for journalists and for activists.”

The suit seeks “injunctive relief,” which, if PETA and ALDF win the case, would amount to the law being taken off the books. The District Attorney’s office, which has not responded to our inquiries, told the Salt Lake City Tribune on Monday that the lawsuit had yet to be reviewed and they could not comment on it.

According to Marceau, the Utah law has resulted in “very tangible injuries” to the First Amendment rights of all the plaintiffs. The Animal Legal Defense Fund wants to do investigative work in the state, but is reluctant to do so due to the legal climate, and PETA, he says, “has explained that they find this sort of law to criminalize activities that they do and want to do in Utah and they don’t want to subject themselves or their agents to criminal liability.”

Potter, who runs the website Green Is the New Red, has concerns similar to PETA’s:  He doesn’t want his reporting to expose his contacts to potential criminal charges. “Ag-gag puts my sources at risk of prosecution for speaking with me or providing me their footage. No journalist should have to choose between not reporting a story that is of national concern, and putting a source in jail,” he said via email.

Emily Meredith of the Animal Agriculture Alliance, an industry group that supports farm protection laws, doesn’t buy the free-speech argument. “I don’t quite understand—and the industry doesn’t understand—how a lot of the laws now are requiring abuse to be reported, how those would be constitutionally suspect or violative of free speech when they’re mandating that you speak up,” she says, referencing the mandatory reporting of animal abuse now required in some states.

In addition to the concerns about biosecurity and food safety posed by activists walking onto ag facilities, Meredith says she repeatedly referenced the right of farm owners to protect themselves from being targeted by activists and undercover journalists. “Just like you wouldn’t let some stranger from the street to walk in your front door, our farmers and ranches have the same constitutionally protected rights to be free from intrusion and to protect their private property,” she says, “So I think that those are issues that really come to the forefront in this type of discussion.”

Attorney Marceau agrees that property owners should be afforded certain protections—and he says that criminal trespass laws adequately supply them.

I asked Meredith why groups like the AAA feel that criminal trespass laws aren’t enough to protect the agriculture industry, and her answer could be summed up as “they asked for it.”

“These laws have really come from farm families who are seeking protection for a specific group who are targeting them,” she said before detailing the different forms she says that targeting might take, in addition to undercover investigations: “Threatening farmers and rancher, threatening politicians, threatening public spokespersons like myself.”

“It’s from all of these tactics and years of these targeted campaigns that these laws have started to crop up and be implemented in states.”

Now, with the Utah lawsuit, we’ll find out if the industry’s legislative response is in line with the constitution.

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