Animal Lovers Challenge Utah’s ‘Ag Gag’ Law

     SALT LAKE CITY (CN) – Animal rights groups sued Utah, claiming a 2012 law that “creates the crime of ‘agricultural operation interference'” unconstitutionally criminalized undercover investigations of animal welfare and industrial farming.
     The Animal Legal Defense Fund et al. sued Gov. Gary Herbert and Attorney General John Swallow, in Federal Court.
     Co-plaintiffs include People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, news magazine CounterPunch, journalist/professor Will Potter, animal rights activist Daniel Hauff, Texas State University at San Marcos history professor James McWilliams, and freelance reporter/activist Jesse Fruhwirth, of Salt Lake City.
     The complaint states: “This lawsuit challenges Utah’s ‘ag gag’ law, Utah Code Ann. § 76-6-112 (West 2012), as unconstitutional. The law creates the crime of ‘agricultural operation interference’ in an effort to impair the public debate about animal welfare, food safety, and labor issues on modern industrial farms. In essence, the law criminalizes undercover investigations and videography at slaughterhouses, factory farms, and other agricultural operations, thus ‘gagging’ speech that is critical of industrial animal agriculture. In doing so, the statute violates the First Amendment, the Supremacy Clause, and the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution.”
     Placing themselves in a noble tradition, the plaintiffs continue: “Since the early 20th century, some of America’s most storied journalistic endeavors have exposed inhumane and unsafe meat production facilities. Upton Sinclair became a household name for exposing the unfair labor practices, cruelty to animals, and unsanitary conditions of meat processing plants in the early 1900s, and his exposé led to the enactment of the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act.
     “There is a long and celebrated history of journalists and activists reporting on industrial agriculture conditions so as to spur enforcement, legislative reform, and debate. The modern day accounts of the meat, dairy, and egg industries are no less compelling than those of a century ago when Sinclair wrote ‘The Jungle.’
     “In order to silence the undercover investigations and corresponding media coverage that contribute to public debate about animal treatment and food safety, industry executives have made the enactment of factory farm-secrecy statutes, commonly known as ‘ag gag’ laws because they gag speech that is critical of industrial agriculture, a top legislative priority.
     “Plaintiffs bring this action to prevent the enforcement of Utah’s ag gag law, Utah
     Code Ann. § 76-6-112, which has the effect of criminalizing this historically celebrated and important form of speech.”
     The complaint adds: “There are federal crimes relating to food safety and animal handling, and the Utah statute unconstitutionally and unwisely prohibits efforts to bring violations of these laws to the attention of the public.
     “Utah Code Ann. § 76-6-112 limits speech in the form of sound and image production, and it does so in a content-based manner. The law drastically, if not entirely, limits the production and distribution of politically salient speech regarding industrial agriculture. The practical effect of the law is to provide preferential treatment to industries at the expense of political speech. Only one side of the debate regarding food safety, animal welfare, and labor practices is available after the enactment of the law in question in this case.”
     The intent of the law, clearly, is to give agribusiness the whip hand in public debate, the plaintiffs say: “In short, the Utah law infringes the rights of plaintiffs and gives the animal agriculture industry a virtual monopoly on the most relevant and probative speech on a topic that is of vital importance to the public, thereby allowing the industry to provide a misleading account of activities in animal operations and hide violations of animal cruelty, labor, environmental, and food safety laws. Such a sweeping prohibition on speech directly harms the plaintiffs, both as investigators and conveyors of this information, and effectively removes an entire category of speech from the marketplace of ideas.
     “Accordingly, plaintiffs ask this court for injunctive relief to preserve their right and the right of others to engage in expressive and communicative activity that is of the utmost public concern,” the complaint states.
     PETA says in the complaint that its “undercover investigations at factory farms have found workers kicking pigs in the head, spray painting them in the eyes, stomping and throwing chickens and turkeys like footballs, smashing piglets’ heads against concrete floors, and beating and sexually assaulting pigs with steel gate rods and hard plastic herding canes.”
     It continues: “PETA has used, and ALDF [Animal Legal Defense Fund] plans to use, the videos and photos of illegal conduct to seek enforcement of civil and criminal laws and regulations, to encourage legislative and industry reform, and to effectuate changes in corporate policies and supply chains.
     “PETA’s 1998 investigation of Belcross Farm, a pig-breeding factory farm in North Carolina, resulted in felony indictments of workers after PETA released hours of video footage that revealed shocking, systematic cruelty from daily beatings of pregnant sows with a wrench and an iron pole to skinning pigs alive and sawing off a conscious animal’s legs. A 2001 PETA investigation of Seaboard Farms, an Oklahoma pig farm, resulted in the first conviction for felony animal cruelty to farmed animals after PETA’s investigation showed employees routinely throwing, beating, kicking, and slamming animals against concrete floors and bludgeoning them with metal gate rods and hammers. PETA’s 2008 investigation of the factory farms of Aviagen Turkeys resulted in the first-ever felony indictments for farmed poultry, and first convictions of factory farmers for abusing turkeys.
     “Undercover investigations have and will continue to result in positive legal outcomes, provide insights into modern factory farming, and contribute immensely to public discourse about the political and ethical dimensions of our food choices.”
     The plaintiffs seek an order permanently enjoining the enforcement of the law, plus fees and costs.
     Their lead counsel is Stewart Gollan with the Utah Legal Clinic.

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