agriculture

Federal judge tosses ag-gag law as unconstitutional, could invalidate North Carolina’s statute

Mercy for Animals documented animal abuse at a Hoke County Butterball facility in 2011. Four years later, state lawmakers passed an ag-gag bill outlawing this type of whistleblower activity. (Screenshot from Mercy for Animals footage)

A court decision made 2,100 miles away has implications for seven states, including North Carolina, that have outlawed whistleblowers’ right to document activities at livestock operations and slaughterhouses. US District Court Judge Robert Shelby of Utah this month ruled that the statute, known as an ag-gag law, is unconstitutional because it infringes on First Amendment rights.

The ultra-conservative ALEC — the American Legislative Exchange Council — has been the architect of these laws, including legislation passed in North Carolina in 2015. That legislation, HB 405, prohibits anyone from gaining access to the non-public area of their employer’s property for the purpose of making secret recordings or removing data or other material. This includes electronic surveillance, even if the cameras are unattended.

Unlike Utah and Idaho, which enact criminal penalties, North Carolina law allow for only civil penalties: allowing businesses to sue for damages.

Then-Gov. Pat McCrory vetoed the bill because it could be interpreted to penalize employees of nursing homes, for example, from documenting and reporting patient abuse. McCrory did not object, though, to curbing the documentation of animal abuse or unsafe food handling practices. The legislature, including several Democrats, overrode McCrory’s veto. Many Democrats supported HB 405 because it contained a provision that penalizes “organized retail theft” as well as employees who steal computer data and proprietary company information, for example.

But the real intent of the ALEC-crafted legislation is to target animal rights groups, which have successfully exposed illegal activities at industrialized farms and slaughterhouses in many states. In addition to whistleblowers, the law’s language prevents employees and journalists from gathering information that could be in the public interest.

In 2012, Mercy for Animals videotaped workers kicking, throwing and dragging live turkeys at Butterball’s plant in Hoke County, and turned over the evidence to law enforcement. As a result, six people were charged with animal cruelty; at least two were convicted and several were fired. Sarah Jean Mason, director of poultry health programs at the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice charges. Mason had alerted a Butterball inspector that the Hoke County District Attorney had the video evidence.

Despite ALEC’s influence, though, 17 states have failed to pass ag-gag bills.

In addition to the Utah decision, in 2015, an Idaho federal court also ruled that state’s law was unconstitutional. The ruling is under appeal.

 

2 Comments


  1. cindy yates

    July 27, 2017 at 12:38 pm

    Ag is such a major force in NC, that politicians fall all over themselves giving in to the industry. Just look at where the money goes in this state. And when animals are abused and tortured in this industry or any other, of course it should be exposed. Perpetrators should be punished and the general public needs to know what they are paying for when they buy meat.
    Under this law, criminals are not punished, but rather the reporter of the crime. At least 17 states withstood the onslaught of ALEC.

  2. Lane Mandel

    July 27, 2017 at 12:55 pm

    Not only is it obviously in the best interest of animals to have these truly unconscionable Ag-Gag laws repealed, it’s in the public’s best interest. Every consumer should want to know — and have a right to know — what’s in the supply chain and potentially what’s on their family’s dinner table. Even as a vegan, while I personally feel safeguarded from the drugs and glass and variety of other nasty junk that’s mixed with slaughtered animal parts, I’m impassioned by efforts to outlaw Ag-Gag legislation out of simple conscience and respect for life, human or animal. Whether Mercy for Animals, The HSUS, PETA or any other groups or caring whistleblowing individuals, bringing to light animal abuses is a responsible, compassionate act and should never be thwarted, particularly by ALEC, which is all about cruelty, exploitation, oppression and destruction.

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