SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Animal-welfare activists filed a lawsuit Monday to overturn a Utah law that prohibits undercover filming while trespassing at farm operations, saying it restricts free expression.
The Animal Legal Defense Fund and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals filed the legal action in federal court in Salt Lake City.
The Utah law makes it a misdemeanor to trespass on private property to record images or sounds of a livestock operation.
Supporters of the law say it's intended to protect property rights.
"It has nothing to do with animals — it's people trespassing on farms" to make recordings, said state Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, a cattle operator who also breeds race horses. "If people can sneak onto anybody's property, then we don't have any rights."
The groups behind the lawsuit have the backing of attorneys at the University of Denver's Sturm College of Law and constitutional scholar Erwin Chemerinksy of the University of California at Irvine.
"The Utah law is very much directed at restricting speech, and especially particular messages," Chemerinksy said. "This is exactly what the First Amendment prohibits."
Filming livestock operations continues a tradition of journalistic endeavors that has led to landmark food safety laws, activists said.
"We have the right to bring animal cruelty to light and will not allow politicians or industry insiders to violate these rights," said Stephen Wells, executive director of the Animal Legal Defense Fund.
Jeffrey Kerr, general counsel for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said the so-called "ag-gag" law signed by Gov. Gary Herbert in March 2012 serves to cover up animal abuse.
"We hope the court will find against the special interest profiteers who know the public will reject meat and dairy if they see what happens to animals before they end up on a plate," Kerr said.
Amy Meyer, 25, a vegetarian who was charged for filming a Utah slaughterhouse, also joined the lawsuit.
"It just bothered me," she said of a meat-packing plant in the Salt Lake city suburb of Draper. "II found it shocking what I could see."
She used her digital camera to shoot footage of a front-end loader dumping a sick cow outside the slaughterhouse. The recording included more graphic scenes and drew a large audience on the Internet.
In Utah, Meyer was the first and only person charged in Utah for agricultural operation interference.
Prosecutors eventually dropped the charge because Meyer's Feb. 8 video showed that she recorded the operation from the shoulder of a public street. The meat plant has since shielded itself from view, she said.