Judge to decide fate of Utah’s ‘Ag Gag’ law

SALT LAKE CITY -- A federal judge will decide the fate of Utah's "Ag Gag" law and whether it is constitutional.

Arguments were made Monday in U.S. District Court over the controversial law that makes it a misdemeanor crime to take pictures or video inside an agricultural operation without permission. Both the state and animal welfare groups challenging the law have asked a federal judge for summary judgment -- a decision on the constitutionality of the law passed in 2012 by the Utah State Legislature.

Animal welfare groups argue the law targets them and stifles their free speech rights. Amy Meyer, a plaintiff in the case, was the first to be charged under the law when she filmed a Draper slaughterhouse. (The case was ultimately dismissed because she filmed from a public sidewalk.)

"I think it was really clear from the moment I arrived outside the slaughterhouse and cops arrived and asked, 'What are you taking pictures of?' and 'What are you taking pictures for?' that this is a concern about what the motive is," she said. "That's why this is unconstitutional."

In court, the Utah Attorney General's Office insisted that it is not trying to stifle free speech rights -- but the First Amendment has a limit at the private property line. The state argued against a "constitutional right to spy" which it insisted the law guarded against.

"It doesn't impair speech, it doesn't prohibit speech," assistant Utah Attorney General Kyle Kaiser said. "You can speak about it, you can write about it, you just don't have all different media at your disposal."

The Animal Legal Defense Fund insisted freedom of speech does transcend property boundaries.

"This is a statute that is designed to crush the First Amendment rights and keep the public in the dark about how animals are treated in factory farms," Matthew Liebmann, the chief legal counsel for the ALDF, told FOX 13 outside of court.

But U.S. District Court Judge Robert Shelby pressed both sides on whether the First Amendment stops on private property, and what protections it offered to people who make misrepresentations to get on that property. He also noted that a private property owner has civil remedies versus the government criminalizing conduct.

After hours of arguments, the judge took the issue under advisement, but signaled to lawyers he might strike down a portion of the law while leaving other aspects intact. The ALDF said that if it loses, it would consider an appeal to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court in Denver.