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Utah attorneys discuss animal activist suit: What does the cow say? Go away!

January 22, 2014

Agricultural laws haven’t really been front-and-center in the news lately, but Utah attorneys are interested in a particular case that is centering itself in the spotlight now. In this Huffington Post article, readers learn about the battle being waged between the state of Utah and animal welfare activists – a case set to come before U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby next month. Shelby has recently earned himself a place in the national spotlight for his actions in striking down Utah’s ban on same-sex marriage.

Commonly known as “ag-gag” laws, the statutes in effect in Utah (as well as in Kansas, North Dakota, Montana, Iowa, and Missouri) make it a misdemeanor to trespass on private property to take photographic or video images, or record sounds of a livestock operation. The plaintiffs – People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Animal Legal Defense Fund – argue that the law is discriminatory because it serves no other purpose than to single them out for punishment and restrict their freedom of expression. Utah attorneys interpret the law as protecting private property, saying that prosecuting the behavior of trespassing is within the rights of the owner of the property.

The state of Utah has asked for the lawsuit to be dismissed, not only because the activists have not shown that they face an immediate threat of criminal prosecution, but also because the statute only criminalizes behavior that occurs on private property. Utah attorneys have varying opinions on the plaintiff’s insistance that the threat of prosecution hampers their ability to bring to light the myriad “horrors” of factory farming. In the past, the activists argue, it has been through their efforts to reveal unsavory farming practices that landmark food safety laws have been implemented.

The right to privacy is a long valued tradition for Americans, and some Utah attorneys would argue that private industry rights supersede the value of journalistic exposés on independent businesses.  The senior attorney with the Animal Legal Defense Fund argues that their suit with the state of Utah was chosen because of Utah’s severest restrictions of the “ag-gag” laws; all the other state’s laws prohibit either photos or gaining access to the property under false pretenses, but Utah is the only state to criminalize both.  Confident their suit has merit, and that they’ll find favor with Judge Shelby, the senior attorney for the ALDF calls Utah’s laws “egregious.”

It’s not certain that Judge Robert Shelby will see the matter so simply, however. Even with a history of liberal decisions such as striking down the 3rd Amendment of Utah’s State Constitution to pave the way to gay marriage in Utah, his history demonstrates an unwavering commitment to the equity of the law. Utah attorneys can recognize that this suit brings about a conflict-of-interest battle between parties under the law, and he may find that the plaintiff’s cry of “unfair” is not grounded in legal precedent enough to countenance trespassing on private property.

 

 

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