Opponents say Utah’s "Ag Gag" law violates First Amendment

SALT LAKE CITY – A court challenge under way claims Utah’s Agriculture Operation Interference law violates the First Amendment right to free speech.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press will be filing a friend of the court brief in federal District Court in Salt Lake City today.

It claims the so-called ag gag law prevents journalists from reporting on what happens inside slaughterhouses and other food-preparation facilities.

Gregg Leslie, legal defense director at the Reporters Committee, says the law makes it nearly impossible to expose possible cruelty and abuses.

“So we came in to say it also affects journalists when the people who want to act as their sources when their conduct is criminalized,” he says. “Yes, that is the purpose of a friend-of-the-court brief, is to bring another perspective to the court.”

The controversial law says, “A person is guilty of agricultural operation interference if the person records an image of, or sound from, an agricultural operation under certain circumstances, obtains access to an agricultural operation under false pretenses; or obtains employment at an agricultural operation under certain circumstances with the intent to record an image of, or sound from, the agricultural operation.”

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the Animal Legal Defense Fund are the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

Leslie says the Reporters Committee is not directly involved in the litigation, but is considered an outside party offering an opinion on the matter. He says the law prevents PETA and others from keeping an eye on food processors.

“People have a right to know how food is handled,” he stresses, “how animals are treated in slaughterhouses and in any other kind of facility.”

Leslie adds that existing trespassing laws can be bypassed if there is illegal activity occurring at a certain location. He says the long history of groups exposing abuses in slaughterhouses has helped to improve animal welfare and overall food safety.

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