One North Carolina Law Is Bringing the War on Whistleblowers to a New Level

On June 15, North Carolina’s state legislature overrode Republican Gov. Pat McCrory’s veto of that state’s controversial “Ag-Gag” bill HB 405, also known as the Property Protection Act. The earliest bills of this kind, which target industry whistleblowers, activists and in some cases journalists, were introduced in the 1990s when the Animal Liberation Front was said to be targeting labs engaged in animal testing. The bills’ legal scope has widened over time to include factory farms as well as most other industries involving animal products.

But unlike the bills passed in seven other states over the years – including in Wyoming, Missouri and Washington where they specifically target animal rights activists – North Carolina’s HB 405 takes things to a whole new level, criminalizing whistleblowing against any and all businesses. Based on “model legislation” provided shortly after 9/11 by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and originally called the “Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act,” HB 405 signals a new brand of anti-democratic legislation that could proliferate, state by state, in the years to come.

ALEC brings together dues-paying state politicians and corporate or special interest groups to craft a variety of rightwing legislation – from protections for extractive industries to voter suppression laws. Although technically a non-profit, ALEC is extremely partisan, with most of its membership coming from the Republican Party. Included among ALEC’s alumni are Wisconsin Governor and now presidential candidate Scott Walker and House Speaker John Boehner.

With an increasingly unhinged rightwing in Washington unlikely to move their agenda forward federally, corporations like Exxon Mobil, Cargill and Koch Industries have come to rely on ALEC to set precedents with their model legislation in as many states as possible.

So just which businesses are covered under the Property Protection Act? Among the most alarming are elder care facilities, day cares and charter schools. And according to some, this may in part be merely a ploy to shift the spotlight away from Big Ag’s involvement pushing HB 405 and similar bills.

“The ag folks know that if they only give themselves this protection from being exposed, it further proves they have something to hide,” Matthew Dominguez, the public policy director for Farm Animal Protection at the Humane Society, said in a recent interview. “So, in recent years, they’ve intentionally expanded the reach very broadly to cover all business to cover their tracks.”

Although defenders of the North Carolina bill have claimed their goal is not to criminalize whistleblowers in general, an editorial that ran in the Charlotte Observer before Gov. McCrory’s veto was overturned argued this simply isn’t the case.

“The intent of the bill was made clear when Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake, offered an amendment. He would have given employees protection if the activity they recorded was illegal. Senate leaders wouldn’t even allow a vote on that,” read the editorial.

Understanding ALEC’s Role

In 2013, The Center for Media and Democracy issued a report about ALEC’s legislative agenda and it makes for some sober reading. The report looks at five main areas that ALEC targets, including privatized education, the environment and workers’ rights. In the latter category, researchers discovered that out of 117 ALEC-sponsored bills put forward in 2013 throughout the US, 14 were passed. These included “Right to Work” bills intended to crush unions – like the one signed into law by Scott Walker in Wisconsin, which was almost identical to ALEC’s original model legislation.

ALEC has also been pushing “Castle Laws,” better known as “Stand Your Ground” laws, like the one in Florida that led to an acquittal for George Zimmerman in the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin. Openly propagating these bills at the behest of the gun industry and powerful lobbying groups like the NRA has led to some rare but impacting blowback for ALEC; the publicity around the Zimmerman acquittal, for instance, led powerful companies like Coca-Cola, Walmart and Kraft Foods to sever their ties to the group. Not only that, ALEC’s “network lost almost 400 state legislators from its membership… as well as more than 60 corporations that form the core of its funding,” according to The Guardian.

Another group, Color of Change, has targeted ALEC for its promotion of discriminatory Voter ID laws targeting people of color, waging campaigns to shame big corporations for supporting the disenfranchisement of voters.

Now, with Ag-Gag laws on the rise, there is hope that they’ll face legal challenges in court and be struck down as an obvious abridgement of Americans’ First Amendment rights to free speech. At the same time, ALEC is increasingly relying on the post-9/11 association of activism with terrorism – and the federal government has often seemed to share that enthusiasm, prosecuting government whistleblowers from Chelsea Manning to Jeffrey Sterling.

In today’s America it appears some people, especially corporate “persons,” are indeed more equal than others. From buying elections to muzzling activists who film animal cruelty, political and financial elites increasingly think and act like they’re above the law. Until bills like the Property Protection Act get vehemently opposed and rejected at the state level, they may keep getting away with it – and the Constitutional rights of Americans may vanish before our eyes.