Utah’s law banning secret filming of agricultural facilities is unconstitutional and should be struck down just as Idaho’s measure was last year, argue animal welfare activists in a new court filing.
The so-called “ag-gag” law, passed in 2012, has a chilling effect on groups trying to expose unsafe and illegal practices at slaughterhouses and factory farms, said attorneys for a group of plaintiffs that include the Animal Legal Defense Team and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
Utah state officials defend the ag-gag law in their own filing, saying it doesn’t violate any constitutional protections and still allows for filming from public places and for whistleblowers to report abuses. The state argues that ag-gag promotes workplace safety by barring unskilled undercover operatives from slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants.
“These illegal acts cannot be justified by the plaintiffs’ bare desire to get a story they want to tell,” wrote Kyle Kaiser of the Utah attorney general’s office.
The dueling court filings come 10 months after a federal judge ruled that Idaho’s similar law was unconstitutional, giving animal rights activists across the country hope that the decision will pave the way to overturn similar laws in other states.
U.S. District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill found that the Idaho law violated the First Amendment, writing in the August 2015 ruling that audio and visual can vindicate a whistleblower who otherwise might not be believed.
Utah’s ag-gag law was passed amid a wave of such laws being considered around the country. Eight other states have passed some sort of law against such surreptitious filming.
No ruling is expected anytime soon in Utah’s case, which was filed nearly three years ago.
One of the plaintiffs, Amy Meyer, was arrested under the misdemeanor statute for filming a front-end loader dumping a sick cow outside a Draper slaughterhouse in 2013. Charges against her were dropped because she recorded the scene from a public street.
Society needs people like Meyer because relying on slaughterhouses and meatpacking plant employees turning whistleblowers isn’t reliable, said PETA attorney Matthew Strugar writing the brief on behalf of the plaintiffs. “Many of these workers are undocumented or otherwise disenfranchised and are not aware of whistleblower protections,” he wrote.
Strugar argues that the measure was motivated by animosity, saying Utah’s “legislative history oozes with disdain for animal protection groups.”
The state said legislators aren’t concerned with the animal welfare groups, but rather people who go onto private property and risking the safety and security of operations underway.
“There is no broad-reaching right to enter private property illegally or under false pretenses, even if the interloper has (in his mind) a noble pursuit of doing so,” wrote Kaisel for the state.
Media groups have also joined the lawsuit, saying the law violates the First Amendment. The plaintiffs say they have three journalism experts who can testify that undercover investigations are part of the country’s “rich and celebrated journalistic history.”
“Much valuable journalism has emerged from investigations that employed subterfuge to expose wrong,” Strugar writes.