A federal court declared an “ag-gag” law in North Carolina unconstitutional and barred the state government from enforcing key parts of the law against journalists or whistleblowers.

Judge Thomas Schroeder concluded the state’s Property Protection Act violated the First Amendment and removed multiple provisions from the law, leaving parts that did not target speech intact.

North Carolina was the fifth state to have their “ag-gag” law struck down by a federal court.

“Ag-gag laws” are essentially corporate-backed farm secrecy statutes that are intended to suppress and criminalize speech about industrial agricultural production. They are especially designed to discourage employees from taking photos or recording video that may expose abuse or misconduct.

On June 3, 2015, the North Carolina General Assembly overrode a veto by the governor and passed the Property Protection Act, which amended the law to provide a “civil remedy for interference with certain property rights by creating a civil cause of action for the owner or operator.”

It empowered the attorney general and chancellors of state universities, where animal research and experiments are conducted, to file civil lawsuits that could result in steep fines—$5,000 for each day a “violator” committed offenses.

The law was challenged by a coalition of organizations, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), Center for Food Safety, Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), Farm Sanctuary, Food and Water Watch, Farm Forward, the Government Accountability Project, and American Society of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).

As a coalition, the organizations claimed the law would discourage them from “employment-based undercover investigations to document and expose animal abuse” or inhibit their ability to collect information from whistleblowers and investigators that could be incorporated into their advocacy work.

ALDF told the court it was prepared to conduct undercover investigations at state-owned facilities, but preparations were “thwarted” by the passage of the law.

Similarly, ASPCA halted the funding of investigations in North Carolina because they feared they would be targeted and held liable.

Each of the organizations highlighted ways the law undermined their ability to produce content that was central to their missions because the law prevented information from reaching them.

The federal court in North Carolina acknowledged [PDF] one key difference between the law and many of the other “ag-gag” laws that have been deemed unconstitutional. However, because it empowered private citizens or entities to bring lawsuits did not mean it satisfied constitutional guidelines.

As Schroeder described, the law empowered the state government to “identify speech—or in some cases conduct that includes speech”—and enforce the prohibition against this speech. IT was the University of North Carolina Chancellor or the North Carolina Attorney General, who would represent targeted state agencies.

It is also likely that the law was struck down because it had no discernible purpose outside of discouraging undercover investigations. North Carolina has a trespass law to protect private property, and the judge was presented with zero evidence to show that the trespass law was deficient.

“The ASPCA is proud to have been a part of this lawsuit and applauds the court’s decision, which is a huge victory for farm animals and the fight to create a more humane, transparent food system,” ASPCA stated. “Ag-gag laws are unconstitutional and have no place in our society.”

Yet, the victory came a week after the Iowa state legislature passed its third “ag-gag” bill. It was tucked into legislation that was drafted to deal with the impact of the coronavirus.

“The latest bill would create a new crime, ‘food operation trespass,’ for anyone who enters a location without permission where a ‘food animal’ is kept or where meat is sold or processed,” The Intercept’s Alleen Brown reported.

The first Iowa “ag-gag” law was declared unconstitutional, and the second Iowa law was challenged in federal court.

Altogether, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, North Carolina, and Utah have each seen their “ag-gag” laws defeated by lawsuits brought by organizations impacted by them.

North Carolina also is notorious for its pig farms, which can smell like decomposing bodies if waste is illegally sprayed.

For years, according to residents, “North Carolina regulators shielded the identities of polluting farms, burying public complaints against them and leaving those who lived nearby with few avenues for redress.”

A law like the one struck down is the kind of law that helps North Carolina coverup the impact of agribusiness on the environment in communities throughout the state.

“Studies show that consumers are concerned about the welfare of farm animals, due in part to undercover videos showing horrific conditions and abuse of animals on factory farms. Big Ag should focus on shifting to more humane farming systems instead of seeking to punish those who expose the cruelty currently happening on farms,” ASPCA concluded.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."