Greensboro, N.C. — A group of animal rights and consumer protection organizations filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday seeking to have a state law that allows employers to sue workers who conduct undercover investigations to expose questionable or illegal activity declared unconstitutional.
Lawmakers passed House Bill 405 over Gov. Pat McCrory's veto in June. Proponents say the law protects private property rights, while opponents dubbed it "ag-gag" legislation, arguing that it muzzles whistleblowers.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the Animal Legal Defense Fund and Farm Sanctuary have all conducted undercover investigations that have revealed animal abuse and questionable food production practices at facilities in North Carolina, according to the lawsuit. The Center for Food Safety, Food & Water Watch and the Government Accountability Project said they each depend on facts supplied by whistleblowers so they can disseminate the information publicly.
All six groups said North Carolina's law, which they refer to in the lawsuit as the "Anti-Sunshine Law," will hinder their ability to expose wrongdoing at factory farms, puppy mills, food processing plants and animal research labs.
The law gives businesses the right to sue employees who expose trade secrets or take pictures of their workplaces without consent. McCrory said he vetoed the bill because he feared it doesn't protect employees who want to report illegal activity, such as elder abuse in a nursing home.
Backers maintain protections for whistleblowers who report wrongdoing to law enforcement or regulatory agencies are written into the legislation.
"(T)he Anti-Sunshine Law is directed at those who set out to investigate employers' and property owners' conduct because they believe there is value in exposing employers' and property owners' unethical or illegal behavior to the disinfecting sunlight of public scrutiny," the lawsuit states. "Because the Anti-Sunshine Law targets the gathering of information in order to inform the public, it attacks the 'core value' embodied by the federal and state constitutional protections of free speech and press."
The lawsuit names Attorney General Roy Cooper and Chancellor Carol Folt of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which has research labs that have been investigated by some of the plaintiffs.
"The Property Protection Act was enacted with bipartisan support to protect private property and business owners against trespassing and fraudulent employment, while still offering significant safeguards for whistleblowers and employees who report illegal activity to the authorities," Sen. Brent Jackson, R-Sampson, and Rep. Jimmy Dixon, R-Duplin, said in a joint statement issued Thursday. "While we are disappointed these activists have chosen to file a politically-motivated lawsuit, we are confident the court system will uphold the law."