J-Groups Challenge Utah Ag-Gag Law on First Amendment Grounds

December 18, 2013

Anti-cruelty groups — until recently — have been nearly alone in complaining that the meat industry is trying to hobble their ability to report on cruelty to animals. Now news-reporting groups have joined them, complaining that industry-supported "ag-gag" laws restrict the First Amendment right to gather and report news.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) and 16 other journalism organizations filed a friend-of-the-court brief December 10, 2013, arguing that Utah's ag-gag law infringes on constitutionally protected newsgathering rights.

Ag-gag laws throw up a variety of barriers to the undercover investigations normally needed to document abuse of animals in industrial livestock operations. For example, they may make it illegal to photograph livestock operations without an owner's permission, or to apply for employment at such an operation without disclosing affiliation with an anti-cruelty group.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) filed suit July 22, 2013, in federal court against Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert, seeking to overturn the Utah law outlawing undercover filming of farm operations.

Among the parties joining RCFP in the amicus brief are the publishers of two major Utah newspapers, the Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News.

"By criminalizing audio and image recording at meat processing plants," the journalism groups argued, "the Utah 'ag gag' statute weakens food safety guarantees at the same time it stifles free speech. Journalists and organizations that conduct investigations into meat processing facilities have long been credited with advancing the safety of the meat the public consumes. Federal inspection has drastically improved the safety of the meat in the past century, but problems within the inspection system leave a gap in food safety that journalists and animal rights organizations have filled."