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Judge Overturns Utah's 'Ag-Gag' Ban on Undercover Filming at Farms

Posted  July 11, 2017

By the C|C Whistleblower Lawyer Team

Last Friday, U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby struck down Utah’s 2012 “ag-gag” law as unconstitutional for violating the First Amendment’s free-speech protections. “Ag-gag” describes a number of state-level bills and laws that punish and suppress whistleblowers who expose abusive conditions on factory farms. At least sixteen states, including Kansas, Montana, North Dakota, Iowa and North Carolina have enacted ag-gag laws. Utah’s version banned secret filming of farm and slaughterhouse conditions. See NPR.

Specifically, the Utah law criminalizes (1) obtaining access to an agricultural operation under false pretenses; (2) bugging an agricultural operation; (3) filming an agricultural operation after applying for a position with the intent to film; and (4) filming an agricultural operation while trespassing.

In his decision, Judge Shelby noted that the bill’s sponsors declared the bill was motivated by “a trend nationally of some propaganda groups . . . with a stated objective of undoing animal agriculture in the United States” and was meant to address the “vegetarian people that [are] trying to kill the animal industry.” He further remarked that the law “appears perfectly tailored toward [] preventing undercover investigators from exposing abuses at agricultural facilities.” Finding the state’s purported interests in upholding the act unavailing, Judge Shelby held the law could not withstand the scrutiny required of laws that infringe on First Amendment rights:

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.

This case was the first of its kind when filed in 2013, but since then an Idaho district court has overturned that states’s ag-gag law on similar grounds. The Idaho case, Animal Legal Defense Fund v. Wasden, is currently pending in the Ninth Circuit on appeal by the state.

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