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Bill targets animal rights activists' videos, photos on farms

SALT LAKE CITY — Veterinarian and part-time farmer Rep. John Mathis, R-Vernal, wants to put a stop to what he called “animal-rights terrorists” who take videos or photos on farmers’ property without permission 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 told legislators this week. “The animal welfare movement has become an animal rights movement, and that’s wrong.

Mathis’ bill, HB187, would make “agricultural operation interference” a crime, a class A misdemeanor on the first offense, a third-degree felony on the second.

While the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee passed the bill out favorably on Tuesday, opposition remains from animal rights and criminal justice circles.

Such undercover photography is needed to bring animal abuse on factory farms to public attention, said Lindsay Rajt, a national spokeswoman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Such investigations have led to criminal prosecutions in some states, she added.

The proposed Utah law could discourage farm employees who have legitimate concerns for animal cruelty from documenting and reporting that, she said.

"The public deserves a right to know what's going on behind the scenes."

According to its website, PETA supports not eating meat or wearing leather, fur and wool.

State criminal justice officials told legislators the proposed law is too broadly worded.

“If a group of school kids (touring a farm) take a picture with a cellphone, that would be a class A misdemeanor," Jacey Skinner, director of the Utah Sentencing Commission, testified before the committee. "The bill requires no specific intent, simply taking a picture.”

But Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, asked, “Who would really pursue that in terms of prosecution?”

It’s not likely, Skinner agreed, but added: “We generally try to avoid drafting things widely to not capture activity that is not intended.” She encouraged lawmakers to adopt a more narrowly written version of the bill.

The sentencing commission director also said the punishments attached to the crime are too harsh.

Rep. Craig Frank, R-Pleasant Grove, noted that the committee recently approved a measure that would make assault on a police officer with substantial bodily harm a third-degree felony. The two offenses don’t seem equivalent, he said.

Mathis directed his criticism at a movement that’s recently gained national attention, which would require that egg-laying hens have more room to move about in their cages.

It’s farmers, not animal rights activists, who know best what their animals need to be healthy and happy, Mathis said.

The committee voted 10-3 to move the measure as originally written to the full House.