–by Gabriella Agostinelli

Last February, animal rights activist Amy Meyer was arrested outside a Utah slaughterhouse after she was caught filming activities at the location. The charge? Agricultural Operation Interference, a class B misdemeanor. Police accused Amy of breaking Utah’s new law that criminalizes the recording of agricultural operations while trespassing or entering a premise under false pretenses. Utah Code 76-6-112. Amy maintained she never left public property to film, causing an inflammatory reaction among Americans: have we met the day where we are robbed of our First Amendment freedoms even on public property?

In short, no. A plain reading of § 76-6-112 shows the law only targets recordings made on private property. Luckily for Amy, prosecutors dropped the charge against her for lack of evidence she had actually entered private property during her filming.

Regardless, Amy’s was a cornerstone case as she became the first Utahan poised to be prosecuted under such a law. Highly criticized for their propensity to stifle First Amendment freedoms, these laws are more colloquially known as “ag-gag” laws, or “anti-whistleblower” laws.

In the early 1990s, three states (Kansas, Montana, and North Dakota) passed laws banning unauthorized filming at farms/factories in an effort to prevent damage to these facilities and their reputations after animal-rights break-ins. See Kan. Stat. Ann. § 47-1827(c)(4); Mont. Code Ann. § 81-30-103(2)(e); N.D. Cent. Code § 12.1-21.1-02(7). About 28 states also have “animal enterprise interference” statutes that target the entering of an animal facility to commit unauthorized acts (trespass, damage) or for committing fraud on a job application. They do not, however, specifically target undercover investigators and the use of recording devices, like those used to film the scandalous footage that appears on episodes of 20/20 or Dateline. Some of these 28 are codified criminally while others are civil in nature.

In 2012, Utah and Iowa passed more rigorous laws specifically written with undercover investigations in mind. Essentially, these laws criminalize entry into a private farm or factory under false pretenses with intent to proliferate what is witnessed inside. While Iowa’s law does not specifically mention the use of recording devices, its legislative history does hint towards this reality.

Opponents of ag-gag laws see the measures as attempts to silence whistleblowers who discover animals being abused in farms or sick animals being processed for food. Proponents of ag-gag laws advocate that they are necessary to protect farmers and food processors from “baseless allegations or misrepresentation” as to what occurs on the premise.

While the debate rages on as to whether these laws are truly constitutional, one thing remains certain: these laws do not, and cannot, influence the public’s behavior on public land. Nobody can make you avert your eyes, or your cameras, from what we may witness from the street. Though ag gag laws are creeping towards more comprehensive restrictions, we’re not at the point where they can be considered oppressive.