Utah Defends Law Aimed at Livestock Filming

January 13, 2014 09:07 AM

By: Brady McCombs, Associated Press

The state of Utah is pushing back against animal-welfare activists who contend a state law to prevent filming of agricultural operations is designed to silence them.

In new court papers filed last week, state attorneys argue a federal judge should throw out a lawsuit because the activists have not shown they face an immediate threat of criminal prosecution. The state first asked for the case to be dismissed in October.

The law, passed in 2012, makes it a misdemeanor to trespass on private property to record images or sounds of a livestock operation.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Animal Legal Defense Fund filed the lawsuit in July, saying the law restricts free expression. They filed court papers in December saying the law singles them out for punishment and was motivated by hostility toward them.

The groups contend the threat of prosecution hampers their ability to shed light on the "horrors" of factory farming.

Supporters of the law say it's intended to protect property rights. In the new filings, state attorneys say activists can still keep tabs on factory farming by doing all the same things but without crossing over into private property.

"The statute only criminalizes behavior that takes place on the property of an agricultural operation," the state says in the court filing. "Plaintiffs can take an investigation all the way through the planning stage and even somewhat into the implementation stage."

U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby is handling the case. Shelby thrust himself into the national spotlight recently when he struck down Utah's same-sex marriage ban.

Activists say filming livestock operations continues a tradition of journalistic endeavors that has led to landmark food safety laws.

The groups behind the lawsuit have the backing of attorneys at the University of Denver's Sturm College of Law.

Amy Meyer, who was charged after she filmed a Utah slaughterhouse in a Salt Lake City suburb, is a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

She used her digital camera to shoot footage of a front-end loader dumping a sick cow outside the slaughterhouse. The recording included more graphic scenes and drew a large audience on the Internet.

In Utah, Meyer was the first and only person charged in Utah for agricultural operation interference.

Prosecutors eventually dropped the charge because Meyer's video showed that she recorded the operation from the shoulder of a public street. The meat plant has since shielded itself from view, she said.

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