SALT LAKE CITY — Animal rights activists, including a Salt Lake woman who faced a criminal charge under Utah's so-called "ag gag" law, filed a lawsuit Monday challenging the statute as unconstitutional.

"In essence the law criminalizes undercover investigations and videography at slaughterhouses, factory farms, and other agricultural operations, thus 'gagging' speech that is critical of industrial animal agriculture," according to the 41-page complaint filed in U.S. District Court.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, CounterPunch magazine and five individuals claim the law violates their rights to free speech and equal protection. They want a federal judge to strike down the law.

The Utah Legislature passed a bill in 2012 that makes it a class B misdemeanor to trespass on private livestock or poultry operations and record sound or images without the owner's permission. It also prohibits seeking employment with the intent of making those recordings. Leaving a recording device for that purpose would be a class A misdemeanor.

Legislative debate about the measure centered on unauthorized filming of agricultural operations by whistle-blowers seeking to expose animal abuse, although no instances of such surreptitious filming had been known to occur in Utah.

One of the plaintiffs, Salt Lake resident Amy Meyer, was "the first and only person in the country" charged under an ag gag statute this past February, according to the lawsuit.

Meyer filmed workers pushing what appeared to be a sick cow with a bulldozer at the Dale T. Smith and Sons Meat Packing Co., in Draper. She was standing on a public roadway when someone from the company told her that she was not allowed to film, according to her attorney Stewart Gollan, but Meyer responded that she was on public property.

Draper police later cited Meyer with agricultural operation interference, a class B misdemeanor. Draper prosecutor Ben Rasmussen dropped the charge in April when Meyer provide him "new evidence which shows she may not have trespassed onto private property," according to the city.

Rep. John Mathis, R-Vernal, who sponsored the bill in 2012, said during legislative debate that he wanted to put a stop to “animal-rights terrorists” who take videos or photos on farmers’ property without permission in order to create propaganda aimed at destroying the agriculture industry.

“There are groups with the stated purpose to do away with animal agriculture and that’s egregious — that’s egregious to me,” Mathis, a veterinarian, told a House committee. “The animal welfare movement has become an animal rights movement, and that’s wrong."

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Named as defendants in the lawsuit are Gov. Gary Herbert, who signed the bill into law, and Attorney General John Swallow.

The attorney general's office had not seen the complaint Monday and had no comment, said spokesman Paul Murphy.

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