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North Carolina’s ‘ag-gag’ statute violates First Amendment, chills newsgathering

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  1. Newsgathering
The ag-gag statute violates the newsgathering rights of journalists and chills reporter-source communications.

Update: On June 12, 2020, a federal judge 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. On appeal, the Reporters Committee and 17 news media organizations urged the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit to affirm the district court’s conclusion that North Carolina’s “ag-gag” law is unconstitutional, but to hold that the challenged provisions are facially invalid. In a friend-of-the-court brief filed on March 1, 2021, the media coalition argues that the district court’s conclusions related to some subsections of the law are erroneous and should be corrected. In a ruling issued on Feb. 23, 2023, a three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit held that, as applied to the newsgathering activities, four provisions of the North Carolina Property Protection Act violate the First Amendment.

On Sept. 3, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 21 media organizations filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting efforts to challenge the constitutionality of North Carolina’s ag-gag law, which, like other similarly designed laws deemed unconstitutional, punishes the disclosure of information about agricultural facilities and other properties to members of the news media.

The case concerns North Carolina General Statute Section 99A-2, commonly known as an ag-gag law, which the media coalition argues violates the First Amendment rights of journalists by not only interfering with one’s ability to record audiovisuals within an employer’s premises and “using the recording to breach the person’s duty to the employer,” but also by penalizing speech based on its content, known as a content-based restriction.

The media coalition argues in its brief that the law chills constitutionally protected reporter-source communications, as “whistleblowers may seek to disclose information about the facilities where they work in order to bring issues of public concern to light, and the news media, in turn, wants to report on such information.”

“Public scrutiny spurred by investigative reporting has led to improvements in working conditions, food safety, and quality of life for many people,” attorneys argue in the brief. “By stifling constitutionally protected activities, Section 99A-2 threatens to eliminate the kind of vital public interest reporting about the industries that has, in the past, led to safer food, a cleaner environment, and better conditions for workers and animals alike.”

Additionally, the media coalition argues that the law’s consequences, which include preventing “the ability of the news media to report on matters of public concern,” are “entirely intentional,” thereby cutting off “the flow of valuable information to the press and, therefore, the public.”

The brief urges the court to rule in favor of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Inc., Center for Food Safety, Animal Legal Defense Fund, Farm Sanctuary, Food & Water Watch, Government Accountability Project, Farm Forward, and American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

The Reporters Committee has previously filed friend-of-the-court briefs in support of challenges to ag-gag statutes in Idaho, Utah and Iowa.

View the media coalition’s brief in support of challenges to North Carolina’s statute.

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.

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