The United States' first prosecution under so-called ag-gag legislation has begun. Will Potter reports at Green Is The New Red that a Utah woman, Amy Meyer, has been charged under the state's new law prohibiting filming or photographing an agricultural operation, factory farm, slaughterhouse, or the like without permission.
Critical in all this is that Meyer was standing alongside a public street, documenting something occurring in plain view.
According to what Meyer told Potter, she went by the Dale Smith Meatpacking Company in Draper City, Utah to see what she could see from the road. Upon seeing what she thought was a clearly injured but living cow being carried away in a tractor, she began filming. The slaughterhouse manager saw her, came out and told her stop, to which Meyer replied that she was in the public easement along the road and would not stop. The police were called, who noted that, contrary to assertions by the slaughterhouse employee that Meyer had crossed over the property's fence, there appeared to be no damage to the fence.
Potter does a good job going into the particulars of Utah's ag-gag bill—it was actually sponsored by the mayor of the town and owner of the slaughterhouse she filmed—and its connection to similar bills sprouting up across the country. Check it out if you're not up to speed on this issue.
The thing that really strikes me in this case, and ag-gag bills in general, is how filming something in public view from a public space has been criminalized. It's an egregious, aggressive swipe at journalism, activism, and documentary artists, as well as a further example of the erosion of public rights at the behest of corporate interests.
Ag-gag bills make a factory farm a more important facility than the White House. A slaughterhouse becomes more sensitive than a nuclear power plant.
As the ACLU explains, under US law, "when in public spaces where you are lawfully present you have the right to photograph anything that is in plain view. That includes pictures of federal buildings, transportation facilities, and police."
Not that police much like being photographed in many cases, nor do security guards often know that they can't tell you to not photograph the building they have been paid to watch, but if it's in public view it's fair game for photography. What you can do with the images is another story—for example, whether you need permission to use them for commercial rather than journalistic or fine art purposes. But nevertheless the act of photographing or filming itself in public is protected in the United States.
Ag-gag bills turn precedent on its head. They make a factory farm a more important facility than the White House. A slaughterhouse becomes more sensitive than a nuclear power plant. All of these other buildings if I'm standing on the street I can photograph, I can film.
I may sometimes be approached by police or security as suspicious—let's leave aside whether that's right, wrong, or just intimidation—but you can't be stopped for the act of photography itself, provided you aren't breaking any other law. (Yes, if the police want you to leave they can find a law that you're in violation of.)
But standing on a public street and filming a factory farm, under the wording of Utah's ag-gag bill, has been made illegal. Similarly worded bills have been passed in at least half a dozen states, with other states considering them. It's bad enough that factory farm and slaughterhouse owners aren't willing to work with existing trespassing laws in trying to protect their abuses.
I disagree with the farmers' position on ag-gag bills in general, but as unnecessary and patently intimidating as they are, promoting the prosecuting of documentation of events and places in plain view from a public place is even more disturbing. Even if you don't give two figs about the welfare of animals, if you care about civil liberties and free expression, this is outrageous stuff.
UPDATE, April 30th: The charges against Meyer have been dismissed by the Draper City prosecutor.