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Utah’s ‘ag-gag’ law is second to be found unconstitutional

Utah’s law criminalizing “both lying to get into an agricultural operation and filming once inside” violates the First Amendment and has been declared unconstitutional by Federal Judge Robert J. Shelby.

The ruling announced late Friday by the U.S. District Court for Utah resolves the first lawsuit in the nation to challenge a state’s so-called ag-gag law criminalizing certain aspects of undercover investigations by animal activists, journalists or others involving farms and slaughterhouses.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals filed the challenge after Utah animal activist Amy Meyer video-taped the Dale T. Smith Meatpacking Co. pushing a downer cow with a front-end loader. She was arrested under the newly enacted law by Draper police, but local prosecutors did not pursue any charges.

Idaho’s ag-gag law, which was challenged after the Utah case was filed, was found unconstitutional by U.S. District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill. The State of Idaho has appealed that 2015 decision to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. A three-judge panel from the appeals court heard oral arguments in May in Seattle.

“These unconstitutional laws will fall like dominoes,” said Stephen Wells, ALDF’s executive director. “Ag-gag laws are flagrant attempts to hide animal cruelty from the American people, and they unfairly target activists trying to serve the public’s interest.”

A spokesman for Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said the office is reviewing the ruling and considering its options.

A North Carolina lawsuit about that state’s ag-gag law was dismissed. The animal rights groups are appealing

Judge Robert Shelby

In his ruling on Utah’s law, Judge Shelby wrote: “Utah undoubtedly has an interest in addressing perceived threats to the state agricultural industry, and as history shows, it has a variety of constitutionally permissible tools at its disposal to do so. Suppressing broad swaths of protected speech without justification, however, is not one of them.”

Earlier he explained his reasoning this way:

“On first blush, this inquiry appears to pit the First Amendment broadly against the privacy and property interests of landowners. Indeed, it might seem to involve a weighing of the value of undercover investigations against the wisdom and reasoning behind laws suppressing them. Ultimately, however, because of both the breadth of the Act and the narrow grounds on which the state defended it, these complex policy questions never really materialize in this case.”

And here’s how he came down:

“But even assuming animal and employee safety were the state’s actual reasons for enacting the Act, there is no indication that those interests are actually threatened by people who lie to get in the door or record once inside.”

The Utah Legislature approved the ag-gag law in 2012 to prohibit any photos or videotaping inside agricultural operations without the owner’s permission.

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