Nation's first 'ag gag' prosecution dismissed in Utah

"Ag gag" laws are designed to prohibit the undercover videotaping of slaughterhouses, but the nation's first prosecution wound up being gored in the process.

The nation's first "ag gag" prosecution didn't get very far.

Prosecutors have decided to drop their case against a Utah woman who was charged with agricultural operation interference (a class B misdemeanor) in February after she used her cellphone to film cows being slaughtered at a Draper City, Utah, meatpacking company, the Salt Lake Tribune reported.

Amy Meyer was Utah's first prosecution under its new "ag gag" law, which prohibits the recording of agricultural operations while trespassing or under false pretenses. Meyer did not dispute that she used her cellphone to film slaughters at the Dale T. Smith and Sons Meatpacking Co. She did, however, claim that she was standing on public grounds when she videotaped the slaughterhouse.

Yesterday, prosecutors dismissed the case after analyzing new video evidence they received nearly two weeks ago that they said showed Meyer filming at least partly from public property.

Meyer, who describes herself as an animal rights activist, went to the farm because she heard spectators on public property could "witness the horror of cows struggling for their lives as they were led to their violent deaths," she told the Salt Lake Tribune. Before police were called, Meyer said she saw "piles of horns," "flesh being spewed from a chute on the side of the building," and an apparently sick or injured cow being carried away in a tractor.

While Meyer had been facing charges for some months, her case only recently captured media attention after being publicized by Will Potter at Green is the New Red, a blog that details the government's relationship with so-called "eco-terrorists." On Tuesday, Potter's piece made the front page of Reddit, which sent hundreds of thousands of clicks to Potter's website, he claimed.

Both prosecutor Benjamin Rasmussen and Meyer's defense lawyer, Stewart Gollan, said the media attention did not play a role in the case's dismissal. Gollan told the Tribune that he believes Rasmussen's claim that the case was dismissed because of evidentiary concerns.

According to the Tribune, prosecutors have the option of reopening the case against Meyer if new evidence emerges, but they don't anticipate doing so.

AG-GAG ACROSS THE NATION

In numerous states with major agricultural industries, laws have been passed banning the covert coverage of livestock facilities. They were drafted in response to a slew of high-profile incidents where undercover footage captured livestock workers savagely mistreating animals.

In Tennessee, farmhands were caught on camera burning the ankles of walking horses. In Wyoming, pig farm employees were seen beating pigs and throwing piglets into the air. At one of McDonald's largest egg suppliers (and the nation's fifth largest), Sparboe Farms, ABC News's clandestine footage found birds living among dead carcasses and chicks having their beaks snapped off and burned by farm employees.

Numerous employees connected with the Tennessee and Wyoming incidents were charged with animal cruelty. Sparboe lost millions of dollars in business when McDonald's and then Target severed ties with the egg supplier.

To fight back against the tide of leaked footage, legislators in agriculturally-heavy districts have worked with farm state lobbyists to draft ag-gag bills that keep cameras out of livestock facilities.

Currently, numerous states have ag-gag laws, including Utah, Missouri and Iowa.  In 2013, according to the Humane Society, 10 states have already introduced such measures, including Indiana, Tennessee, California, Pennsylvania and Nebraska. Those laws not only exclude videotaping on company property, but also make it illegal for potential employees not to disclose ties to news or animal rights organizations. Some of the proposed laws require footage to be immediately turned over to authorities.

PRO 'AG-GAG'

  • The livestock industry believes undercover videos unfairly convict the slaughterhouse owners and operators before they have their day in court.
  • They say the public is not familiar with butchering techniques, and can easily mistake an accepted practice as barbarous torture.

ANTI 'AG-GAG'

  • Opponents of the ag-gag bills have labeled them "anti-whistleblower laws."
  • They include a wide range of groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, the United Farm Workers, the National Consumers League, the Southern Poverty Law Center and state AFL-CIO chapters.
  • Gabe Rottman, legislative council/policy advisor at the ACLU, said his organization opposes the measures on grounds that they not only put journalists at a disadvantage, but that they also jeopardize First Amendment rights.
  • He said placing regulations on undercover investigations is a form of speech restriction that punishes the act of speech before harm has been done.
  • He also said ag-gag regulations create a dangerous precedent for other industries being able to demand special protections.

 

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