U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby is making more waves this month with his refusal to throw out the ole’ “ag-gag” lawsuit against the state after gaining national media attention last year when he struck down Utah’s same-sex marriage ban. The “ag-gag” law in question “criminalizes undercover investigations of slaughterhouses and factory farms,” and Utah attorneys filing suit against it, mostly in favor of animal rights activists, may have a shot at overturning it now, according to this article in the Huffington Post.
The lawsuit that Shelby has refused to dismiss claims that the law “is designed to silence [the animal rights activists] and prevent exposure of inhumane or unsafe practices,” and the Utah attorneys representing the plaintiffs in the suit are confident—especially now—that the statute will be “knocked down.” But what’s the other side of the story besides the warm fuzzy feelings we get hoping and believing that stock animals are being treated more like beloved pets and less like the hunks of meat they become on our Sunday dinner tables? Agricultural industry, sure, and the ever present bottom line: prices.
Utah attorneys representing the state see the potential destruction of the livestock industry a possible result of this lawsuit, and may be reacting out of fear, but hey, who can blame them when we remember the 2007 investigative journalism in California that led to “the largest meat recall in U.S. history”? State lawyers defending against the suit insist they are arguing on behalf of commercial ag industry rights, and for Salt Lake City business litigators like Gregory Schulz, it’s not difficult to see their point. Protecting property rights is paramount to the safety of employees, the state is arguing, and the industry leaves room for “legitimate” whistleblowers to express concern about handling practices without every Tom and Harry with an iPhone getting all Dick Tracy on their business.
But the issue may be more complex than even that. One of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Amy Meyer was prosecuted under the “ag-gag” laws after “she filmed a front-end loader dumping a sick cow outside a suburban Salt Lake City slaughterhouse,” but since she was standing on a public sidewalk during the filming, the Utah attorneys going after her had no choice but to drop her case. Judge Robert Shelby ruled that Meyer’s case signaled that these laws “‘underscored’ a reasonable fear of prosecution,” and could be used to intimidate law-abiding people in the state.
And while Shelby has thrown out parts of the lawsuit, like the ones claiming that “ag-gag” laws violate media rights to report on results of activists’ investigations because “journalists aren’t likely to be prosecuted for disseminating the results of investigations,” the case is moving forward in Utah courts. As consumers, though, beside our concern for how happy the cows that we eat are before they become fit for our grill, it is probably in our interest to know at least some of the ways in which our food is being handled. Sure, the ag industry has its own rights to its trade secrets, some of the lack of transparency about the products for our literal consumption can be disquieting. What are the meat packers hiding, exactly?
Amy Meyer may be no Upton Sinclair, but as the anti “ag-gag” lawsuit unfolds, maybe we’ll find out more.