A woman stands on the sidewalk and uses her smart phone to record what is happening across the street in broad daylight. Police arrive and charge her with a violation that carries a possible penalty of six months in jail.
It sounds like a story from an oppressive regime in a third-world country, or maybe Arizona. No, this happened in Utah because of the state’s ag-gag law.
The sinister phone-wielder in this case, 25-year-old animal rights activist Amy Meyer, was set to be the first person prosecuted under an ag-gag law.
Meyer went to film the slaughterhouse because she heard that people standing on public property could see into the facility through its barbed-wire fence and, as she put it, “witness the horror of cows struggling for their lives as they were led to their violent deaths.”
Ag-gag laws are meant to help factory farms and related businesses keep the secret of how they abuse animals. Several states have them (Kansas, Montana, North Dakota, Utah, Iowa, and Missouri) , and many other states are considering adopting similar laws (Arkansas, Nebraska, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Vermont, and Wyoming). Generally they criminalize photographing or recording the goings-on at factory farms, even if you aren’t trespassing or hiding your activities.
These laws are a defense against more investigations like the numerous recent operations that disclosed evidence of shocking cruelty and other legal violations by Big Ag. The resulting scandals led to plant closures and product recalls. It’s no wonder that agribusiness wants to silence people who reveal their gruesome secrets: the consequences hit them in their wallets. None of them want to see a plant close because of one intrepid worker with a hidden camera.
The fact that legislators pass these laws (some of them — others have rejected ag-gag bills) proves how deep they are in Big Ag’s pockets. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the laws are “flagrant violations of the First Amendment.” It seems pretty obvious why.
The Videographer: Amy Meyer
Meyer committed her dastardly deed of standing on a public sidewalk and pointing her phone camera on February 8th; 11 days later prosecutors filed a charge of misdemeanor agricultural operation interference against her. (How could she interfere by standing quietly across the street?)
Her story ends well: after she pleaded not guilty, Utah dropped its charge against her. Authorities kept her on the hook for two months before dismissing the charge, and could bring it again, though that seems unlikely — it appears that Utah officials were reacting to an avalanche of bad publicity (the story crashed reddit.com’s front page for an hour) when they dropped the charge, and wouldn’t welcome a second publicity dump.
The charge’s dismissal was a particularly lucky break for Meyer because the slaughterhouse she taped, the Dale T. Smith and Sons Meatpacking Company, is owned by the town’s mayor, Darrell H. Smith — who also happens to be responsible for appointing the local judges. Yikes.
The public statement Meyer delivered suggests that she is not going to change her commitment to animal rights.
What I saw was upsetting, to say the least. Cows being led inside the building struggled to turn around once they smelled and heard the misery that awaited them inside. I saw piles of horns scattered around the property and flesh being spewed from a chute on the side of the building. 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.
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.
I am shocked and disappointed that I am being prosecuted by Draper City simply for standing on public property and documenting horrific animal abuse while those who perpetrated these acts are free to continue maiming and killing animals.
Now Meyer won’t be prosecuted, but whether the slaughterhouse will be able to continue business as usual is an open question.