North Carolina’s “ag gag” law penalizing employees who document and report illegal, dangerous, or cruel activities at their workplace, is an unconstitutional restriction of protected free speech, a federal judge ruled.
U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Schroeder issued the ruling striking down four subsections of a 2015 state statute, the so-called “Property Protection Act.” Judge Schroeder acted at the direction of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which remanded the case to him for further review of whether the law violated First Amendment protections.
“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,” he wrote. That refers to the government’s obligation to show that a free speech restriction goes only so far as is necessary to protect a compelling public interest.
The law challenged here was instead one of several very similar bills pushed through state legislatures at the urging of corporate agriculture interests. A “gag” rule or order prevents people from speaking about a topic or case. The bills in question were written primarily in response to dramatic exposés of conditions at factory farms and meat processing plants — hence the “ag gag” term.
A coalition of animal rights groups filed the lawsuit against the state law. The North Carolina Farm Bureau Federation intervened to support the law, while a coalition of media organizations filed arguments in support of striking it down. Environmental advocates oppose the law because of its likely use against whistle-blowing workers who expose severe pollution violations by corporate hog farms and similar operations.
“The North Carolina measure is modeled on legislation — the Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act — drafted in 2003 by the American Legislative Exchange Council [ALEC]. ALEC has been widely derided as a ‘bill mill’ and is funded largely by the conservative Koch Brothers and major corporations, such as ExxonMobil, Pfizer, and Anheuser-Busch. ALEC writes legislation that states can then adopt or amend. North Carolina’s law is similar to measures passed by state legislatures in Kansas, Iowa, Idaho, Wyoming, and Utah. The courts have struck those down, ruling they are unconstitutional,” wrote Lisa Sorg for NC Policy Watch.
Many conservative state and federal lawmakers are members of ALEC or attend its conferences and events. Sorg’s article notes four of the 2015 law’s sponsors, including principal sponsor Rep. John Szoka (R-Cumberland), are connected to ALEC.
The ag gag law was controversial even for some North Carolina conservatives. Then-Gov. Pat McCrory vetoed the bill, but his veto was overridden.
The state Department of Justice, led by Attorney General Josh Stein, represents the defendant State of North Carolina in the case. A department spokesperson said last week that attorneys are reviewing whether to appeal the order.