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Utah wants judge to toss 'ag gag' lawsuit

Attorneys for the state want a federal judge to throw out a lawsuit challenging Utah's so called "ag gag" law.
Attorneys for the state want a federal judge to throw out a lawsuit challenging Utah's so called "ag gag" law.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Attorneys for the state want a federal judge to throw out a lawsuit challenging Utah's so-called "ag gag" law.

The animal rights activists, including a Salt Lake City woman who faced a criminal charge, don't have standing to challenge the law because they can't show an immediate threat of prosecution, according to a motion filed in U.S. District Court.

"The challenged statute does little more than provide protection to an industry and a small group of people who have been specifically targeted for surreptitious access and nonpermitted recording," assistant attorney general Daniel Widdison wrote.

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 contend the law criminalizes undercover investigations and videography at slaughterhouses, factory farms and other agricultural operations, and gags speech that is critical of the industry.

PETA says it has documented farm workers kicking pigs in the head, stomping and throwing chickens and turkeys like footballs, and smashing piglets’ heads against concrete floors

“Utah should pass a law requiring publicly accessible webcams in slaughterhouses and on farms to catch the abusers, not protect them," PETA attorney Jeffrey S. Kerr said in a statement "The state’s motion, like the ag gag law itself, is designed to shield this industry from scrutiny.”

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.

"In essence, the law punishes trespass and fraud, and protects the right of private property owners to control who has access to their property and what they do while on that property," Widdison wrote.

It also helps assure agricultural operations that their employees are loyal, he wrote.

One of the plaintiffs, Salt Lake City resident Amy Meyer, was "the first and only person in the country" charged under an ag gag statute last 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 prosecutors dropped the charge in April when Meyer provided "new evidence which shows she may not have trespassed onto private property," according to city officials.

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