Conscience has a cost, and for workers who blow the whistle on inhumane or unsafe conditions at North Carolina’s factory farms, it could be $5,000 a day.
State lawmakers on Wednesday voted to override Gov. Pat McCrory’s veto of House Bill 405, which critics have dubbed “ag-gag” legislation due to its potential to silence workers who expose animal cruelty, employee safety or health and sanitation violations.
The bill is a watered-down version of an extreme 2013 measure that would have made unauthorized recording in an industrial facility a criminal act. That frightening legislation died a well-deserved death.
Instead, HB 405 establishes civil penalties for video and audio recording and/or the copying or removal of records, data and documents in “the nonpublic areas of an employer’s premises.” The new law directs courts to award exemplary damages of $5,000 a day “for each day, or portion thereof, that a defendant has acted in violation.”
Workers who report criminal activity to law enforcement may enjoy some protection under state whistleblower laws. What this legislation aims to prevent is the leaking of hidden-camera video to animal welfare groups, which often expose dangerous or cruel conditions to the public.
To call this law anything other than an ag-gag bill is naive. It purports to protect businesses from corporate espionage and organized retail theft, but in that regard, it’s a solution in search of a problem. Supporters have failed to show that undercover competitors are infiltrating North Carolina industries to steal trade secrets.
To the extent that the General Assembly wants to discourage spying and misappropriation of intellectual property, the bill is unnecessary. A robust body of case law has already established firm precedent for corporate espionage claims. North Carolina judges didn’t need any hand-holding.
McCrory broke from Republican legislative leaders and vetoed the bill, explaining that it puts workers who witness wrongdoing in a precarious position. Earlier this week, he signed a bill known as Burt’s Law, which requires employees of nursing homes and assisted living facilities who witness patient sexual abuse to report it to law enforcement.
“I don’t want to discourage good employees of any industry from reporting illegal activities to the proper authorities, which is why I am vetoing House Bill 405,” the governor said in a written statement. “In good conscience, I cannot sign Burt’s Law and then in the same week turn around and sign contradictory legislation.”
Legislators should have sustained McCrory’s veto. Instead, they chose to cloak corporate executives in legal protection while leaving industrial workers out in the cold.
We’re proud that state Rep. Garland Pierce, D-Scotland, was among the 36 House members to vote against overriding McCrory’s veto. It’s disappointing to report he was the only member of Richmond County’s legislative delegation to do so.
The threat of five-figure fines will likely have a chilling effect on would-be whistleblowers. Workers who witness animal abuse, safety violations and unsanitary conditions will have to weigh the importance of public exposure against the penalties they could face under this shortsighted law.
Fortunately, there’s nothing lawmakers, businesses or judges can do to prevent the swift public backlash that inevitably comes when animal cruelty and unsatisfactory working conditions are dragged into the daylight. Now more than ever, consumers must demand humane treatment by voting with their wallets.