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.