Four animal activists who were allegedly on private property at a hog farm in Iron County in September have been released from charges of Utah’s agricultural interference law, also known as an ag-gag law. The activists will still face criminal trespass charges, and many are wondering when it comes to ag-gag laws, why trespassing charges aren’t sufficient and exactly who these other laws are protecting. In the case of many animal rights activists, they believe it’s not necessarily who is being protected but a certain type of misbehavior that is being protected.
Ag-gag in Iron County
The four activists from California and Maryland were members of a group known as the Farm Animal Rights Movement (FARM), and the hog farm was Circle Four Farms, a part of Murphy-Brown LLC, the livestock production subsidiary of the world’s largest pork producer. According to a report from the Salt Lake Tribune, the attorney for the activists, T. Matthew Phillips, stated that the four wanted to document the pigs’ journey from the farm to a California slaughterhouse.
According to the FARM website, they are a nonprofit group that is “working to end the use of animals as food through public education and grassroots activism.” While they claim that most of their programs are aimed at engaging “likely target audiences … and [nudging] them along the vegan path,” they also state that “[o]ccasionally, we seek to capture media attention through dramatic displays.”
Attorney Phillips says the Circle Four Farms incident was not one of these examples of “dramatic display.” In fact, he states that the four were actually on a public roadway and were only capturing images of farm buildings, not of the workers or animals.
However, the wording of Utah’s ag-gag law 76-6-112 states that a person is guilty of agricultural interference if they knowingly or intentionally record “an image of, or sound from, the agricultural operation” without the consent of the owner. The law specifies several acts that are prohibited, including leaving a recording a device on the premises, obtaining a job under false pretenses to record activity, recording activity as a regular employee of the facility, or trespassing on private property to get such images or sounds.
Given the fact that Iron County prosecutors are still charging the four activists with criminal trespass, they must differ with Phillips, however, Circle Four Farms stated that they didn’t wish to pursue the agricultural interference charges.
Ag-gag Under the Microscope and Put on Trial
Utah Rep. John G. Mathis (R-Vernal) sponsored HB 187 in 2012. The bill went through two revisions before being ultimately approved. According to an article in Deseret News, Mathis claimed the reason for sponsoring this bill was that he wanted to put an end to “animal-rights terrorists” out to destroy the agricultural industry. He was quoted as saying that animal protection groups such as FARM and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) were using these investigations as propaganda to promote their own organizations, especially in fundraising efforts.
Opposition to the ag-gag laws—which are currently on the books in five other states—say these laws are violations of the First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. They state that the First Amendment protecting free speech and press has specifically led to reform in the food industry in the past, citing such books as Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” which was pivotal in leading the government to pass the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.
If convicted of criminal trespass, a class B misdemeanor per Utah Criminal Code 76-6-206, the four activists could face up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000. Of the six states with ag-gag laws, only one other person has been charged with violation of the law. In February of 2013, Amy Meyer was charged for videotaping the operations at Dale Smith Meatpacking Company in Draper. However, charges against her were also dropped, with the reasoning cited as either public outcry or the fact that Meyer’s video footage showed that she was on public property at the time of her filming.
On a larger scale, in July of 2013, two national nonprofit organizations, the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) and PETA, filed a lawsuit against the State of Utah challenging the ag-gag law for violating the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Attorneys for the state attempted to argue that the case should be thrown out, however, according to an August 2014 article in the Salt Lake Tribune, U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby has refused.
Even though he didn’t dismiss the case, Shelby has said that at this point, the plaintiffs have failed to show how the statute has resulted in past injury as no one is currently being prosecuted under the statute or how it will cause future injury, but the case will still have its proverbial day in court which means it will have to stand up to further public scrutiny.