Judge throws out parts of N.C. workplace undercover law

June 16, 2020 GMT

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — In a victory for animal rights activists, a federal judge has thrown out portions of a North Carolina law designed to discourage undercover employees at farms and other workplaces from taking documents or footage.

Several groups sued state officials for a 2015 law that provides civil penalties and damages against people whom bill supporters labeled as purposefully getting jobs to steal company secrets or record purported maltreatment. The plaintiffs, which include People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said the measure violated the U.S. Constitution by stifling their ability to investigate employers for illegal or unethical conduct.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed in 2018 a ruling by U.S. District Judge Thomas Schroeder of Winston-Salem to dismiss the case. Directed by the appeals judges to review the case again, Schroeder wrote late last week that four subsections of the law violated the First Amendment rights of the groups.

Attorneys for the state officials and the North Carolina Farm Bureau Federation, another defendant, failed to demonstrate that the free-speech restrictions placed upon the groups were necessary because somehow current employer trespassing laws aren’t effective, Schroeder said.

“Where the government posits no compelling interest and does not attempt to show that a law is narrowly tailored, as is its burden, it cannot succeed,” Schroeder wrote Friday in declaring two of the four subsections as unconstitutional.

PETA said it had wanted to conduct an undercover investigation at testing laboratories at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill but decided against it because of fear of prosecution under what’s called the “Property Protection Act.”

Other states have passed similar legislation labeled by some as “ag-gag” laws. They’ve been declared unconstitutional in a handful of states, animal rights groups say.

The law “was an attempt to bully and threaten those working for transparency, free speech and the public good. We brought this lawsuit for the sake of the health and safety of all citizens of North Carolina, and are glad to see this law struck down today,” the plaintiffs said in a news release Monday.

The Farm Bureau Federation, which intervened in the original lawsuit, didn’t immediately comment on the ruling, which could be appealed. Attorney General Josh Stein and UNC-Chapel Hill’s chancellor were also named defendants. Stein’s Department of Justice, which helped represent them in court, is reviewing the decision, a department spokesperson said Monday evening.

A coalition of more than 20 media organizations filed a brief supporting the plaintiffs, which also included the Center for Food Safety, Animal Legal Defense Fund and American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

In 2015, then-Gov. Pat McCrory had vetoed the Property Protection Act, saying the measure pushed by fellow Republicans fell short of protecting honest workers who uncover criminal activity. Other critics of the bill said it would halt exposes of animal cruelty at farms and meat-packing plants or intimidate nursing home workers from reporting elder abuse.

The General Assembly overrode McCrory’s veto. The law’s chief sponsor said at the time that whistleblowers who sought jobs under valid pretenses would still be protected under state law.