Federal judge allows lawsuit against Utah's 'ag gag' law to move forward
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — A federal judge Thursday allowed a lawsuit against Utah's so-called "ag gag" law to move forward, though he removed some of the plaintiffs from the case for lack of standing.
U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby denied the state's motion to dismiss the complaint, saying it didn't adequately show that there is a legitimate purpose for the law. But he didn't prevent the state from making that argument as the case moves forward.
Amy Meyer, a Salt Lake animal rights activist, was among four groups and individuals the judge allowed to remain as plaintiffs in the suit. Meyer was the first and only person charged under an ag law, according to the lawsuit.
"I think my case demonstrates that these ag gag laws can be used to intimidate law-abiding people, and the only thing to do in a free society is to reject these laws all together. I'm excited that we're moving forward," she said after the hearing.
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. Police cited her with agricultural operation interference. Prosecutors dropped the charge when Meyer showed them evidence that she didn't trespass on private land.
The Utah Legislature approved 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 is a class A misdemeanor.
The law does not criminalize the possession or distribution of unlawful recordings, but focuses on trespassing and filming while on the property, according to the state.
The Animal Legal Defense Fund, 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 contend the law criminalizes undercover investigations and videography at slaughterhouses, factory farms and other agricultural operations, and suppresses speech that is critical of the industry.
Shelby ruled that Meyer, PETA, the Animal Legal Defense Fund and Daniel Hauff, an undercover investigations consultant, have standing in the case because fear of prosecution has thwarted their plans to investigate a Utah slaughterhouse. It has also chilled their free speech, he said.
The judge dismissed from the complaint four journalists and college professors because they couldn't show how the law would harm them.
"We only needed one plaintiff to go forward. We have four going forward, so the law is going to be put to the test," said PETA attorney Matthew Strugar. "This law absolutely targets animal rights activists and animal protection organizations."
Assistant attorney general Daniel Widdison said the judge's decision wasn't unexpected. He said the state hasn't decided how it will revise its arguments as the case proceeds.
Legislators passed the law in response to a specific concern and narrowly tailored it, unlike similar laws enacted around the country, Widdison said, adding the state believes the statute can withstand constitutional review.
"We don't necessarily have to disavow targeting animal activists. That said, the law was designed not to necessarily target anyone but to protect this vital Utah industry," he said.
A group of national and local media organizations, including the Deseret News and KSL, filed an amicus brief supporting the plaintiffs in the case. They say the law weakens food safety guarantees at the same time it stifles free speech.
"While no journalist has the right to trespass on private property, the overbreadth of the Utah statute poses a substantial risk of criminalizing lawful — and constitutionally protected — newsgathering activity," according to the brief.
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