Video of Utah slaughterhouse draws attention to ‘ag-gag’ laws
Amy Meyer was standing outside a slaughterhouse in Draper City, Utah, in February and said she saw what she had suspected: wounded animals being dragged to their deaths. Then she did what she had come for in this YouTube age and took out her cellphone to record it.
Meyer was charged with a misdemeanor in connection with the incident, accused of violating a controversial new law in the Beehive State that forbids the recording of unauthorized photos or videos of agricultural operations.
The so-called ag-gag law is designed to prevent whistle-blowers from recording surreptitious images of farms and animals processing plants that could prove damaging to the meat industry.
On Monday, the case against Meyer, 25, was dismissed. But her defense attorney, Stewart Gollan, knows the law is still on the books.
“There is nothing to prevent the state of Utah from prosecuting someone else on the same charge,” he told the Los Angeles Times.
According to reports in the Utah news media, prosecutor Benjamin Rasmussen said his office moved to dismiss the case after he received new evidence during a hearing for Meyer on April 18. He received footage provided by the woman showing that she was on public property during at least some of the time she was recording. Rasmussen said other footage left Meyer’s positioning ambiguous.
“I determined that in the interest of justice I wouldn’t pursue the matter,” he told the Salt Lake Tribune.
Gollan argues that in bringing the case, his client’s constitutional rights were being abridged. She did not step on private property to record her images, he said, and should receive the same protections as citizens who take images of police officers and other law enforcement in public. He also said the mayor of the town is a co-owner of the plant.
Darrell Smith, mayor of Draper City, did not return telephone calls seeking comment.
But officials at the Dale T. Smith and Sons Meatpacking Co. released a statement Tuesday:
“Dale T. Smith and Sons employees noted possible trespassers on our property on Feb. 8, 2013. We asked them to leave and when they refused, we contacted the authorities,” the statement read. “Any decisions regarding pressing charges rests with the Draper City prosecutors office.”
Gollan said several states, including Tennessee, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, are enacting similar laws.
“Some of those are even more restrictive than the one here in Utah,” he told The Times. “And all of them have constitutional infirmities. For example, the first District Court of Appeals has already upheld the constitutional right to document government officials in a public space. And certainly laws criminalizing the filming of an agricultural operation from a public street would seem to fall victim to the same challenges.”
Meyer had heard that scenes of animal cruelty could been seen from the street outside the meatpacking plant, so she went to see for herself. Standing on the side of the road, she could peer through a barbed-wire fence to see animals struggling with workers who tried to lead them into the building.
“Cows being led inside the building struggled to turn around once they smelled and heard the misery that awaited them inside,” she said in a statement released by her lawyer to The Times. “I also witnessed what I believe to be a clear act of cruelty to animals -- a live cow who appeared to be sick or injured being carried away from the building in a tractor, as though she were nothing more than rubble.”
Plant officials called the police, insisting that Meyer had gone on the plant’s property to record the images, a charge she denied. She was allowed to leave the scene but was later charged with a misdemeanor offense.
“At all times while I documented this cruelty, I remained on public property. I never once crossed the barbed-wire fence that exists to demarcate private and public property. I told this to the police who were on the scene,” Meyer said in her statement.
Gollan said he remained disturbed by the law.
“The criminalization of activity designed to curtail dialogue and criticism of certain businesses in the public sphere certainly raises concerns,” he said.
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