NC 'ag-gag' taken to court

by Erica Shaffer
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RALEIGH, NC – A coalition of animal welfare, consumer rights and whistleblower protection groups filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging a North Carolina statute that criminalizes undercover investigations of private businesses.

In their complaint, the coalition argues that “…the statute’s central targets are whistleblowers, such as investigative journalists and activists engaged in undercover investigations, who seek to share information with the public…,” while exempting individuals who collect information and give it to their superiors or government officials.

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory vetoed the bill in June 2015 on concerns the law was too broad and risked discouraging employee reports of animal cruelty. He added that the bill did not adequately protect honest employees or give clear guidance to employees who uncover criminal activity. However, the legislature voted to override the veto.

The law criminalizes undercover investigations like the one that led to the arrest and conviction of Danny Cajija Miranda, a contract worker at Deese Farms, who was caught abusing chickens by an undercover investigator with Mercy for Animals, a Los Angeles-based animal welfare group. Earlier this month, Miranda was sentenced to 45 days in jail and 12 months of probation.

It is results like this, animal welfare groups argue, that make undercover video investigation so valuable. “North Carolina’s Anti-Sunshine Law seriously hinders North Carolinians’ ability to know the truth about misconduct, mistreatment and corruption happening in virtually every industry, including nursing homes, factory farms, financial institutions, daycare centers and more,” the coalition said in a joint statement.

North Carolina’s “ag-gag” law went into force on Jan. 1. Individuals who take unauthorized recordings or photographs on non-public business property can face civil penalties of up to $5,000 and jail time. The law applies to activists, journalists and anyone else who poses as an employee but engages in unauthorized recording of business activities.

North Carolina is the third state — along with Utah and Idaho— to face a court challenge to a so-called “ag-gag” law. In August 2015, US District Court Chief Judge B. Lynn Winmill struck down a similar law in Idaho, who said Upton Sinclair lied about his identity to gather material for his book, The Jungle. Sinclair’s expose of the meatpacking industry led to passage of the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act.

“Today, however, Upton Sinclair’s conduct would expose him to criminal prosecution,” Winmill said. The state’s attorney general appealed Winmill’s decision in the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals.

The coalition filed the lawsuit in US District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina-Greensboro Division. The plaintiffs include People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the Center for Food Safety, Animal Legal Defense Fund, Farm Sanctuary, Food & Water Watch and the Government Accountability Project.
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