NC Ag-Gag Law Criminalizes Whistleblowing 'Across All Sectors,' Charges Suit

"No photographing the chickens!"--at least in North Carolina, where a new ag-gag bill has criminalized whistleblowing in the animal industry. (Photo: Ivy Dawned/cc/flickr)

NC Ag-Gag Law Criminalizes Whistleblowing 'Across All Sectors,' Charges Suit

Rights advocates say the new law 'is one of the most appalling overt attempts to silence whistleblowers' to date

North Carolina's controversial ag-gag law is facing a court challenge by a coalition of watchdog groups who charge that it violates a citizen's First Amendment rights and places the safety of animals, families, and food supply at great risk.

Anna Myers, executive director and CEO of whistleblower protection and advocacy organization Government Accountability Project (GAP), who announced the legal action on Wednesday, said the law "is one of the most appalling overt attempts to silence whistleblowers" in the organization's 38-year history.

The law, which took effect on January 1, "aim[s] to criminalize food industry whistleblowing" by "punish[ing] those who conduct undercover investigations of any private entity in North Carolina," Myers continued.

Among other things, the law prohibits the recording of video at industrial agriculture facilities without written consent of the owner. However, as Myers points out, the law "is written so broadly that it could target truth-tellers across all corporate sectors," such as those who wish to expose improper activity at nursing homes or daycare centers.

In addition to GAP, the plaintiffs in the suit include People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the Center for Food Safety, Animal Legal Defense Fund, Farm Sanctuary, and Food & Water Watch.

Their joint statement reads: "This law blatantly violates citizens' rights to free speech, a free press, and to petition their government, and violates the Equal Protection Clause. It places the safety of our families, our food supply, and animals at risk, and it attempts to bully and threaten those working for transparency, free speech and the public good. Our lawsuit is being brought for the sake of the health and safety of all citizens of North Carolina. We are confident the law will be found unconstitutional and that a victory in North Carolina will deter other state legislatures from repeating North Carolina's mistake."

Similar bills have already been introduced in more than half of all state legislatures and have become law in numerous states, including Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Utah, Wyoming--and now North Carolina.

Animal rights groups attribute the success of these measures to an aggressive factory farm lobby.

Last week, a North Carolina Perdue employee was found guilty of criminal animal cruelty after an undercover expose by animals rights group Mercy for Animals revealed him kicking, stomping, and throwing chickens.

As Charlotte Observer columnist Eric Frazier recently pointed out, had the abuse occurred after the new law took effect, the employee may have gotten away with it.

The law, Frazier wrote last week, "would have allowed the supplier to quietly dismiss [the employee] without criminal prosecution, then go to civil court to sue the undercover animal activist who videotaped the crimes. Net effect: no animal rights expose, no messy public relations problem for the poultry industry."

"According to those running our General Assembly, this is progress," Frazier continued. "Whistle blowers can now be sued for secretly taking pictures in the workplace or exposing trade secrets. Be they fed-up longtime employees or social activists who hire on temporarily to sniff out abuses, all are now legally at risk if they try to get wrongdoing on tape."

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