A group of animal rights and consumer protection organizations filed suit in federal court this past Wednesday to challenge the constitutionality of the Property Protection Act, better known as the “ag-gag” law. The law passed in 2015 allows employers to sue employees who take photos, video, or any other data from their property without their consent. The lawsuit contends that the law violates the constitutional rights of free speech and civil rights of employees. The law makes it nearly impossible for citizens to legally gather evidence on and report instances of wrongdoing. For example, a farm worker would not be able to document acts of animal cruelty at a farm, or pollution being discharged into a stream. The lawsuit goes on to allege that North Carolina’s House Bill 405 “attacks the core values embodied by the federal and state constitutional protections of speech and press” and “should be declared unconstitutional under the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution.”
North Carolina’s governor, Pat McCrory (R), agreed with some of these claims last year when he vetoed the bill, saying that he was “concerned that subjecting these employees to potential civil penalties will create an environment that discourages them from reporting illegal activities.” However, McCrory’s own party promptly overrode his rejection. Supporters of the new law say it is not aimed at traditional whistleblowers who take their concerns to the proper authorities. Rather, they say, it is aimed at activists who join a company simply to spy and then go to a news outlet with their secret recordings. But, it is clear from the broad language of the statute that the intent was to protect employers far beyond the scenario that they describe. The bill essentially offers employers blanket protection against any employee that documents wrongdoing in the workplace and allows them to seek civil damages against their employee.
North Carolina is one of seven states that have passed a so called ag-gag law. Most of the laws are centered around the agriculture industry, and are aimed largely at keeping employees or outside groups from photographing or videotaping animal abuse at large farming operations. As the second largest hog producing state in the country behind Iowa, North Carolina’s agricultural industry was certainly motivated to join the others states that had ag-gag laws on the books. But, the impact of the statute will extend far beyond the agricultural community. The law will have implications on nursing homes, hospitals, day cares, group homes, charter and private schools..
These laws have been challenged in other states. Last year a Federal District judge struck down Idaho’s ag-gag law, saying it was unconstitutional. We certainly hope that North Carolina’s district court will realize that the legislature cannot undermine the First Amendment.
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