A federal judge considered Tuesday whether a Utah ban on hidden cameras at slaughterhouses that was passed amid a wave of similar measures around the country violates the right to freedom of speech.
U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby said he's spent hours considering the issues raised by the case, including the balance between private property rights and the First Amendment.
Animal activists argue the law is an unconstitutional attempt to keep them from exposing inhumane or unsafe practices at factory farms. The state of Utah contends the First Amendment doesn't allow people to enter private property under false pretenses and record however they want.
"I don't think there's a constitutional right to spy," said Kyle Kaiser with the Utah Attorney General's Office. The law makes farm facilities safer by barring unskilled undercover operatives, he said.
Shelby questioned both sides closely. He asked whether there's any evidence of activities asking activists seriously disturbing safety at farm facilities, and Kaiser conceded there was none.
On the other side, the judge asked activists whether business competitors, for example, should be able to plant recording devices to steal trade secrets. Lawyer Matthew Liebman with the Animal Legal Defense Fund said corporate espionage wouldn't pass legal muster and property owners do have the right to remove someone caught with a camera. But it's different when the state gets involved, he said.
"What we're trying to protect against is a government motive to silence speech," Liebman said. The Utah law was part of national push to stop embarrassing videos from animal-rights groups, not agricultural safety, he said.
The hearing came after a judge in Idaho found a similar law violates the First Amendment — a win for activists that they're aiming to repeat in eight states with similar rules.
Idaho is appealing that ruling.
At least five people have been charged under the Utah law since it was passed in 2012, though those cases have since been dropped.
Four were animal activists from California who were cited outside a large Iron County hog farm in 2015. The charges were later dropped because the farm didn't want to pursue them.
A woman who once faced a misdemeanor count after being accused of filming a front-end loader dumping a sick cow outside a slaughterhouse in 2013 is a plaintiff in the case challenging the law, along with Animal Legal Defense Fund and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
Media groups have also joined the lawsuit, saying the law violates the First Amendment.
The Animal Agriculture Alliance, U.S. Poultry and Egg Association and other groups have lined up to support the state.