North Carolina Could Become Fifth State With an Ag-Gag Law

Bill sitting on Governor McCrory’s desk would make it illegal to document or film animal abuse on factory farms

Whistleblowers beware. Last week, the North Carolina senate passed HB 405, a controversial “ag-gag” bill that would make it illegal to document unethical or illegal practices on industrial farms in the state. Passed by the House in April, the bill has been presented to the Governor, who has five more days to veto it. If he does nothing (or signs it) before the end of the week, North Carolina will join Idaho, Iowa, Missouri, and Utah as the fifth state with a law criminalizing undercover investigations of factory farms.

The North Carolina bill would stifle would-be whistleblowers by making it illegal for employees to record or remove employer data or records, to record any images or sound on their employer’s property, or to place an unattended camera to film the property. It would also make it illegal to seek employment for the purpose of exposing animal abuse, environmental harms, or food safety issues on farms, or for anything other than a “bona fide intent of seeking or holding employment.” If the bill is signed by Governor McCrory, employees could be sued for breaching the “duty of loyalty” to their employer, and liable for $5,000 per day they are found in breach, court costs, and any actual damages caused by the breach.

In addition to North Carolina, ag-gag bills are also currently under consideration in New Mexico and Washington.

Animal welfare advocates are particularly concerned about HB 405 because of North Carolina’s prominent factory farm industry. The state ranks second in the country for the number of factory-farmed hogs, second in turkey production, and sixth in production of factory-farmed broiler chickens. (In North Carolina, factory farm chickens out number people nine to one.)

“For a state like North Carolina to be really shut down from investigations is very detrimental and would put billions of animals at risk,” says Matt Dominguez, public policy director for the Human Society of the United States’ farm animal protection campaign.

Although the North Carolina bill appears to be geared towards the agriculture industry, the duty of loyalty extends to employees beyond the agricultural sector. Opponents say the law would also apply to whistleblowers trying to document abuse at nursing homes and day care centers. Dominguez believes this was intentional, allowing legislatures to disguise the fact that it is an ag-gag law, and in practice making it “the broadest [ag-gag law] that will be on the books.”

Since the early 1990s, ag-gag bills have been proposed in more than 20 states, with a resurgence of these whistleblower suppression bills in the past few years. Although most of these bills have failed, four states have enacted ag-gag laws in various forms. Idaho’s law criminalizes any unauthorized recording inside agricultural facilities. Iowa and Utah have laws that make it illegal for an applicant to lie on an application for agricultural employment. (Many industrial farm applications now include a question specifically asking if applicants are affiliated with an animal rights organization, news organization, or labor group.) Missouri has a “quick reporting” law that requires any evidence of animal abuse be turned over to authorities within 24 hours, making prolonged investigations documenting patterns of abuse nearly impossible. The Utah and Idaho laws are currently being challenged in court by a coalition of animal protection, environmental, labor, civil liberty, and labor rights organizations on First Amendment grounds.

Whichever form they take, these ag-gag laws limit transparency within the food system and shield factory farms from exposure for potential abuse of animals, workers, or the environment. According to Dominguez, the poultry industry is the primary backer of HB 405.

Although there are few examples of people being prosecuted under ag-gag laws, prosecution isn’t necessarily the point. “The purpose of these laws aren’t really ever to prosecute anyone,” says Dominguez. “It is to cause a chilling effect.”

Pointing to the Humane Society and other animal welfare organizations, he adds, “We operate within the law when it comes to our investigations, and the factory farmers and people that are supporting these ag-gag laws know that if a law passes we will be unable to do investigations. We would never put our investigators or our organization in a position to break the law.”

The North Carolina Senate passed the ag-gag bill just days after Compassion Over Killing, an animal welfare group based in Washington DC, released undercover footage inside North Carolina’s Montaire Farms. The video, filmed in April, shows chickens being violently thrown across the room and punched by frustrated employees. In 2013, Los Angeles-based Mercy for Animals exposed routine abuse of turkeys at several Butterball factory farms in North Carolina. And a 2007 undercover investigation by PETA documented employees beating and otherwise abusing pigs at Murphy Family Ventures, LLC in North Carolina.

A recent survey, commissioned by the ASPCA and conducted by Lake Research Partners, found that 74 percent of likely voters in North Carolina support undercover investigations of animal abuse and food safety hazards on industrial farms. Sixty-three percent would oppose a law that would deter these investigations.

Governor McCrory has until the end of this week to veto the legislation. If he does nothing before May 29 (or if he signs the bill), HB 405 will become law.