SALT LAKE CITY -- A federal judge is refusing to dismiss a lawsuit that challenges Utah's controversial "Ag-Gag" law.
At the end of a long hearing Thursday, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Shelby rejected the state's request to dismiss the lawsuit. Animal rights groups had sued, saying the law that criminalizes photography or video recording inside agricultural operations targets them and stifles free speech.
The Animal Legal Defense Fund, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and others sued over Utah's Agricultural Interference Law, which makes it a misdemeanor crime to go into a farm or other agricultural operation, and take pictures or video without permission.
On Thursday, Judge Shelby sided with the state and dismissed a group of academics and journalists as plaintiffs (FOX 13 filed a friend-of-the-court brief alongside other news media organizations). But he allowed the ALDF, PETA and Amy Meyer to proceed as plaintiffs.
Meyer was the first person to be charged under Utah's "Ag-Gag" law. In 2013, she stood on a sidewalk and filmed what she described as a cow being pushed by a bulldozer at a slaughterhouse in Draper. The Utah Attorney General's Office conceded she was wrongly charged, because she filmed from a public place.
"I think my case demonstrates that these 'Ag-Gag' laws can be used to intimidate law-abiding people," she told FOX 13 outside court. "Really, the only thing to do in a free society is to reject these laws altogether."
PETA attorney Matthew Struger said the law chills free speech by seeking to block people from exposing abuses within agricultural operations, some of which have led to federal food recalls because of consumer safety concerns.
He also said it specifically targets animal rights activists.
"There were legislators on the floor calling animal protection organizations 'terrorists' and 'jackwagons.' This was aimed to silence the speech of animal rights and animal welfare organizations," Struger said.
The Utah State Legislature passed HB 187 in 2012, with lawmakers saying it was protecting the state's livestock industry. Utah is among seven states with such laws. Utah's lawsuit is the first to challenge prohibitions on recording and photography.
"The law was passed in response to a specific concern that the legislature identified and it was narrowly tailored, unlike the other laws that have been passed around the country," said assistant Utah Attorney General Daniel Widdison.
Judge Shelby will hold a hearing at a later date to decide whether or not Utah's law violates the U.S. Constitution.