These laws -- which have become known as ag gag laws -- are blatant attempts to hide what's happening on farms and criminalize anyone who attempts to bring the truth to light. They started popping up in the early 1990s, when North Dakota, Kansas and Montana all passed legislation that make it illegal to enter facilities that are closed to the public, or to take photographs, or audio and video recordings.
Since then, attempts to pass similar laws have been tried and defeated in a number of states, but a few have unfortunately succeeded in passing various versions of them.
Utah's ag gag law was passed in 2012, which made it illegal to record an agricultural operation while trespassing or entering the premises on false pretenses, whether it was an activist, undercover investigator or journalist, and it would apply regardless of whether the issue exposed was animal cruelty, or violations of food safety and other laws.
Soon after the law was passed, Amy Meyer, a resident activist, became the first person in the nation to be prosecuted under one of these laws.
Her crime? Videotaping cruelty to a cow who was unable to walk on its own. The cow was pushed with a bulldozer and treated like trash at the Dale T. Smith and Sons Meat Packing Co. in Draper City. Meyer made the recording with her cell phone from the roadside while she was on public property, yet she was charged with agricultural-operation interference. Her case sparked national attention and outrage, and the charges against her were later dismissed, but the law still stood.
Later that year, the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) filed the first lawsuit that challenged the constitutionality of ag gag laws against the state, partially on Meyer's behalf, and now they're celebrating a major victory.
On July 7, US District Judge Robert Shelby issued a landmark ruling that struck down the law on the grounds that it violates the First Amendment.
"The court's ruling recognizes what PETA has said all along, which is that Americans have a right to know that workers in the meat industry kick pigs in the face, stomp on chickens and turkeys, and smash piglets' heads against concrete floors," said PETA Foundation Director of Animal Law, Jared Goodman. "PETA will continue to support the constitutional right of whistleblowers to serve the public and animals by exposing the horrific cruelty that occurs behind the scenes in this industry."
Investigations exposing the reality of animal agriculture have led to changes in laws, convictions for cruelty and have opened the public's eyes to what happens behind closed doors. Without them, or free access to the truth, our ability to make informed decisions or generate a dialogue about the industry is stripped away.
The win in Utah follows another victory in Idaho, where the US District Court ruled the state's ag gag law violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments in 2015, and it will hopefully be followed by more.
"These unconstitutional laws will fall like dominos," said Stephen Wells, executive director of the ALDF. "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."