Landmark Lawsuit Targets Utah Animal Agriculture Law for Violating U.S. Constitution
For Immediate Release:
July 22, 2013
David Perle 202-483-7382
Salt Lake City — Today, national nonprofits Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) filed a groundbreaking lawsuit in the U.S. District Court of Utah, challenging Utah’s so-called “ag gag” law for violating the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The lawsuit is the first to challenge the constitutionality of ag gag laws, which aim to criminalize the collection of evidence of animal abuse on factory farms by groups like ALDF and PETA. Utah’s law makes recording the truth about agricultural operations a crime, even for reporters investigating criminal animal abuse and violations of food safety and other laws. The lawsuit is filed on behalf of ALDF, PETA, the political journal CounterPunch, journalists Will Potter and Jesse Fruhwirth, undercover investigations consultant Daniel Hauff, professor James McWilliams, and Amy Meyer, who was the first person in the nation to be prosecuted under an ag gag law. Meyer was charged under Utah’s ag gag law in February after videotaping operations at Dale Smith Meatpacking Company in Draper, Utah from the roadside. Her charges were dropped after public outcry.
Undercover investigations—which are criminalized by the Utah statute—have exposed egregious animal cruelty and shed light on common agricultural practices that cause significant animal suffering, such as the use of crowded battery cages to confine hens. Scholars like James McWilliams, news outlets like CounterPunch, and journalists like Will Potter, who has testified about civil liberties and animal activism before Congress, rely upon the results of investigations for their professional work in educating the public about factory farms. Journalistic exposés of the meat industry have led to shocking revelations of animal cruelty, as well as landmark food safety laws such as the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act. These laws help protect the public from “mad cow” disease, E. coli, and salmonella.
Utah’s ag gag law, 76-6-112, stifles reporting on industrial agriculture by infringing on rights protected under the First Amendment as free speech. Erwin Chemerinksy, a professor and dean of the law school at the University of California, Irvine, and a leading scholar of U.S. constitutional law, has weighed in in support of the lawsuit, explaining, “The Utah law is very much directed at restricting speech, and especially particular messages. This is exactly what the First Amendment prohibits.” Utah’s statute also impedes the enforcement and efficacy of federal laws and was designed specifically to target animal advocates, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.
“The American public relies on undercover journalists and animal activists to expose inhumane and unsafe food production practices in industrial facilities,” said Stephen Wells, executive director of the Animal Legal Defense Fund. “We have the right to bring animal cruelty to light and will not allow politicians or industry insiders to violate these rights to protect their financial interests in covering up dangerous and cruel practices.”
“The motive behind ag gag laws is to hide extreme animal abuse that is now standard on factory farms and in slaughterhouses,” says PETA General Counsel Jeffrey Kerr. “We hope the court will find against the special interest profiteers who know the public will reject meat and dairy if they see what happens to animals before they end up on a plate.”
Attorneys from the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law and the Utah Legal Clinic are providing pro bono legal assistance on the case.
Copies of the complaint are available by request. ALDF was founded in 1979 with the unique mission of protecting the lives and advancing the interests of animals through the legal system. For more information, please visit aldf.org. PETA was founded in 1980 and focuses its attention on the four areas in which the largest numbers of animals suffer the most intensely for the longest periods of time: in laboratories, in the food industry, in the clothing trade, and in the entertainment business. For more information, please visit PETA.org.