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Animal rights group sues Morgan County

Published: Sunday, Aug. 30 2015 12:52 a.m. MDT

An animal rights group has filed a lawsuit against Morgan County officials, saying a new county ordinance is unconstitutional and violates their rights to free speech.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court last week by the Salt Lake Animal Advocacy Movement, stems from a protest the group was planning for Nov. 28 in Morgan County. The group planned on holding "public demonstrations and protests on the public sidewalks and alongside public streets in areas which are part of the public rights of way in Morgan County," the lawsuit states.

A letter was sent outlining SLAAM's intentions to the Morgan City Council, and it received a response from Morgan Mayor Dean Pace asking that the group obtain a mass gathering permit from the Morgan County Sheriff's Office.

Within a month, the city passed an anti-picketing ordinance stating that "picketers would have to move away from the residences of the mink farmers," the lawsuit states. The group then filed for its mass gathering permit and was told by the sheriff's office that it would need to amend its planned route and pay for additional law enforcement on the day of the protest, said SLAAM spokeswoman Colleen Hatfield.

"I was absolutely amazed (at the request)," Hatfield said. "I had them send it to me in writing because I couldn't believe it. I actually said, 'could you please send me something in writing' because I couldn't believe he was really saying it."

Hatfield said these actions, and the anti-picketing ordinance, were all actions taken by Morgan County to keep the group from making its statement. She said that she has participated in and coordinated similar demonstrations nationwide and has never heard of similar requirements. For Hatfield, the major issue is the ordinance, which prohibits protests "within 1,000 feet of a fur farm," which she said is nearly impossible as the county has 16 of them.

"I think it's the biggest concentration of fur farms in the whole country," she said. "Just try to go to Morgan County and not be 1,000 feet from a fur farm. Our route was too close to several fur farms so they redrew the route and now we're basically standing in front of the police department."

But Morgan County Attorney Jann Farris said that while the group was a factor in the decision to pass the ordinance, it is an ordinance that will stand and apply to similar protests in the future.

"I think them coming may have some factor into the discussion of the ordinance, but the ordinance wasn't proposed just for them and won't be taken off of the books after the protest ends," Farris said. "Short of a federal judge telling us it's unconstitutional, the ordinance will stand and likely be on the books for years to come."

As for the additional requirement of paying for extra law enforcement, that was "absolutely protocol" and has been applicable in all past events in the county involving large groups, such as the Ragnar Relay and the Widowmaker Hill Climb, Farris said.

"Though this is the first time we have had a protest group, we're treating it like any other mass gathering," Farris said. "If it were just three or four people, the mass gathering ordinance wouldn't be an issue. They want to bring 50 to 100 people, and that's great for our economy. I don't care if they bring 4,500, we just want to have enough law enforcement."

SLAAM has also filed a suit against the Utah Department of Transportation that Farris said is "very similar" to the one against Morgan County. That lawsuit opposes UDOT's permit requirements, which include a $1 million insurance policy and the presence of Utah Highway Patrol troopers for security.

e-mail: emorgan@desnews.com

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