FAIRWAY, KS — On Feb. 8, Amy Meyer, a 25-year-old activist, recorded cell-phone video of activities at a slaughterhouse in a Salt Lake City suburb. Eleven days later she was informed, much to her surprise, that she was being prosecuted for a Class B misdemeanor under a new Utah state law prohibiting “agricultural operation interference”—an offense that could mean up to six months in jail.

Meyer was the first person in the country to face prosecution under the so-called “ag-gag” laws, which are designed to limit the ability of animal-rights groups to interfere with—or even investigate—agricultural facilities. After the case attracted media attention, the charge against her was quickly dropped.

But Meyer’s case is part of an aggressive legal push that raises alarm bells across the country, for activists and journalists alike. Ag-gag legislation has now been enacted in sevensix states and introduced in at least 15 more. Many of the laws, passed at the behest of agribusiness groups, are based on model legislation drafted by the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and they target what the group calls “animal and ecological terrorists.” But most if not all of the bills are broad enough that investigative reporters could also find themselves bound and “gagged.”

“Even if the target of the legislation is not the press, it may impact the ability of the media to serve in its watchdog role,” said Stephen Key, executive director of the Hoosier State Press Association, which has lobbied against proposed ag-gag legislation in Indiana.

Criminalizing deception

The first ag-gag laws were enacted in the early 1990s by Kansas, Montana, and North Dakota. Each of these laws, with some qualifiers, prohibits unauthorized individuals from taking photographs or video of agricultural operations.

More than a decade later, after a wave of high-profile animal-abuse and food-safety scandals uncovered by activists and journalists, agribusiness groups renewed their push for ag-gag legislation in states across the nation, from New York to Tennessee to California. So far, this new effort has borne statutory fruit in Iowa, Utah, and Missouri, and Arkansas. (For a more detailed history, see Ted Genoways’s recent article in Mother Jones.)

When the Iowa bill was being debated in 2011, it initially hit a snag: The state attorney general warned that a prohibition on recordings of facilities, already in place in three states, might not pass constitutional muster. In response, state Sen. Joe Seng and a colleague narrowed the scope of the measure to outlaw one particular weapon in the activists’ arsenal: lying on a job application to gain access to a facility.

That was enough to appease some opponents of the original draft, including the Iowa Newspaper Association.

“The first iteration of the bill we felt trampled on the Constitution,” INA Executive Director Chris Mudge told me. “… We would have preferred that nothing passed, but we accepted this.”

The new version of the bill, which passed the legislature with overwhelming bipartisan support and became law in March of last year, would not infringe upon press freedom, cosponsor Seng argued in a March 2012 interview on the public radio program Marketplace:

“I would think that people like the news media, anything like that, this law that we just passed is not prohibitive against that. This is mainly entering a facility under fraudulent reasons.”

In fact, journalists occasionally do employ undercover tactics. The May issue of Harper’s featured an investigative report with the tagline “Undercover in an industrial slaughterhouse.” The article was written by Ted Conover, who noted in an accompanying essay that his reporting would have constituted a crime in some states.

In general, though, undercover reporting is viewed warily even by journalists. Mark Horvit, executive director of Investigative Reporters & Editors, a nonprofit group headquartered at the University of Missouri, said his group does not advocate reporting under false pretenses.

“There are all sorts of ramifications that come from working dishonestly,” Horvit said. “So I don’t know that laws need to change to govern that kind of behavior.”

But even if the vast majority of reporters would not be interested in going undercover themselves, they might still want to talk with activists who have done so, and look at any documentary evidence they may have—however it was obtained.

“One of the problems here,” Horvit told me, “is journalists doing their job or possessing material given to them by a source… may now be either breaking the law themselves or working with sources who are breaking the law.”

Missouri: 24 hours or bust?

Deron Lee is CJR's correspondent for Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska. A writer and copy editor who has spent seven years with the National Journal Group, he has also contributed to The Hotline and the Lawrence Journal-World. He lives in the Kansas City area. Follow him on Twitter at @deron_lee.