A federal judge has ruled unconstitutional certain provisions of a North Carolina law that punishes the unauthorized disclosure of information about farms and other businesses, including to the news media.
Judge Thomas D. Schroeder of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina held in a June 12 ruling that the state’s Property Protection Act, passed in 2015, violated the First Amendment. The statute, known as an “ag-gag” law, allowed employers to sue whistleblowers and undercover investigators who, among other things, record images or collect data or documents without permission.
Animal rights organizations, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, filed a lawsuit in 2016 challenging the North Carolina law, arguing that its provisions prevented them from investigating North Carolina employers engaged in illegal or unethical conduct. Historically, animal rights groups have used whistleblower recordings to inform the public about cruel or illegal activities at agricultural facilities.
While the district court rejected the animal rights groups’ arguments that the law violated their Fourteenth Amendment rights, the court ruled that its provisions penalizing the unauthorized recording of images or sound, as well as the unauthorized collection of documents, “fail to pass muster under the First Amendment.”
In September, the Reporters Committee and a coalition of 21 media organizations urged the district court to rule in favor of the plaintiffs, stating that the law’s provisions violated the First Amendment rights of animal rights groups, journalists and their sources. The coalition argued, among other things, that the ag-gag law prevents journalists from conducting investigations to inform the public and creates a chilling effect on sources that poses a risk to lawful newsgathering.
The North Carolina law “stifles public debate and discussion, discourages whistleblowers from coming forward for fear of liability, and favors corporate interests at the expense of First Amendment freedoms and a well-informed citizenry,” the media coalition’s brief states. It also “dramatically chills reporter-source communications and obstructs journalists’ ability to report on matters of public concern, including but not limited to food safety, the treatment of workers at agricultural facilities, and the treatment of animals at research facilities.”
The Reporters Committee has long followed and supported challenges to ag-gag laws in states across the country.
Last June, for example, the Reporters Committee and a coalition of 22 media organizations urged the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit to strike down an Iowa ag-gag law. The coalition argued that the law, which criminalized undercover investigations of agricultural facilities like those conducted by sources of the news media, violated the First Amendment.
In 2016, the Reporters Committee and a coalition of 17 media organizations supported challenges to Utah’s ag-gag law, arguing that it criminalized “lawful — and constitutionally protected — newsgathering activity.” In 2017, a federal judge ruled that the law was unconstitutional.
The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.
Photo by Jimmy Emerson