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North Carolina Ag-gag law draws lawsuits

A new law in North Carolina that prohibits the use of recordings in businesses such as daycares, nursing homes or agricultural and farm venues has ignited a lawsuit against N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper and UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt.

The N.C. General Assembly passed the bill last year over a veto from Gov. Pat McCrory, which allows property owners to recover damages from an individual entering private premises and taking recordings. The law went into effect Jan. 1.

Erica Geppi, director of the N.C. chapter of the Humane Society, said the law would help factory farms hide potential animal cruelty from consumers. 

“This really puts the American public in danger by limiting transparency," she said. 

Several animal rights and environmentalist groups, including PETA and the Animal Legal Defense Fund, are involved in the lawsuit. 

The groups claim the law violates First Amendment rights to free speech, discriminates against whistleblowers and animal rights activists and is a violation of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause.

“We conduct undercover investigations at farms and slaughterhouses across the country," said Matthew Liebman, senior attorney for the ALDF.  "When laws like this pass it prevents us from continuing, which is important in shining a light on an industry shrouded by secrecy."

While Cooper is being sued on constitutional grounds, Folt is named in the lawsuit for blocking the investigation of UNC research facilities via the law. 

Liebman said there is evidence that animal labs at UNC performed practices perceived to be cruel in a PETA investigation between 2001 and 2003, which found disregard of animal care protocol such as cutting the heads off of baby rats while still conscious. Some animal rights groups want to continue these investigations.

Mitch Kokai, spokesperson for the John Locke Foundation, a right-leaning think tank, said the bill acts as a necessary protection of employers. 

“The bill was not designed to apply to someone who went into employment without any intent of hurting the owner," he said. "The intent was to block individuals or groups whose express goal is to come in and hurt the business of the employer."

Kokai said the law distinguishes between employees that may have legitimate grievances with workplace practices and individuals who are actively committed to hurting a business and try to lie their way into the workplace. 

"The benefits of the law are tied into basic constitutional rights of protecting people and their property,” Kokai said.

Kokai said it is not necessary to violate property rights to fight bad workplace practices. 

"Obviously some workplaces are going to have problems, and groups interested in exposing those problems should have every right to try to expose or highlight those problems in a way that does not violate other people’s rights," he said. 

Kokai said he suggests groups who are interested in ending bad workplace conditions should find an employee that works within the suspect organization who would be willing to talk about workplace problems. 

But the groups that are suing see it as having a far more nefarious purpose than protecting property rights. 

 Geppi said this practice severely harms the American public by giving farms the ability to silence whistleblowers.

“I have no doubt their intention was to fire off whistleblowers in farms rather than addressing issues of cruelty," she said. 

Liebman said he assumes the reason for pushing the law, even after it was vetoed by McCrory, was to protect businesses against the general public.

"Given the value of investigation and journalism, the assembly took sight of industry and wanted to get rid of whistleblowers who are fundamental to First Amendment rights," he said. 

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