Previously, an "ag-gag" law prevented filming or photographing animal cruelty on private property.

By Jillian Kramer
Updated July 10, 2017
Ulrich Mueller / Getty Images

Americans count on whistleblowers—journalists, activists, and citizens—to sound an alarm when something is amiss in our nation. And yet, there are laws that actually impede whistleblowing, including so-called ag-gag laws that forbid secretly filming animal abuse in slaughterhouses and factory farms. Until Friday, six states had ag-gag laws on the books. But thanks to a federal judge's new ruling, one of those states just changed their policy: Utah.

Utah's ag-gag law was passed in 2012, after the bill's sponsors claimed that without the legislation, propaganda groups and vegetarians could "kill the animal industry."

Activists and animal rights groups have been fighting the legislation ever since, and in 2013, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, PETA, and Amy Meyer—the director of the Utah Animal Rights Coalition, who was arrested for violating the ag-gag law shortly after it passed—challenged the law in federal court. And with U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby's 31-page decision, which came down on Friday, July 7, they won.

"Utah undoubtedly has an interest in addressing perceived threats to the state agricultural industry, and as history shows, it has a variety of constitutionally permissible tools at its disposal to do so," the judge wrote. "Suppressing broad swaths of protected speech without justification, however, is not one of them."

State attorneys argued that the First Amendment doesn't protect people on private property—and they further argued that ag-gag laws actually protect animals.

But the judge wasn't buying their side of the case. He referred back to the arguments made at the time of the law's passage, saying its sponsors didn't focus on safety but instead sought to protect the profitability of slaughterhouses and factory farms.

Shelby's overturning of Utah's ag-gag law is the second such law that's been ruled unconstitutional. In 2015, another federal judge struck down an ag-gag law in Idaho, saying the bill violated First Amendment rights and the Equal Protection Clause.

However, Idaho filed an appeal to the decision, which is currently pending in court.

Five states—Alabama, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and North Carolina—currently have ag-gag laws on the books. But despite that uphill battle, the Animal Legal Defense Fund considers Friday's decision a victory. "These unconstitutional laws will fall like dominoes," wrote Stephen Wells, executive director of the Animal Legal Defense Fund. "Ag-gag laws are flagrant attempts to hide animal cruelty from the American people, and they unfairly target activists trying to serve the public's interest."

The Utah attorney general's office says it will consider its options after the ruling.