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Coalition of Interest Groups Announces Opposition to North Carolina's "Ag-Gag"/Anti-Whistleblower Legislation

Senate Bill 648 would have harmful impact on animal welfare, food safety, civil liberties, environmental concerns and workers' rights
May 29, 2013

NEW YORK—Twenty-five groups representing a broad spectrum of public interests have joined together to formally announce their opposition to Senate Bill (SB) 648, North Carolina's "Commerce Protection Act." These groups, both national and local in scope, have sent a joint letter to the bill’s sponsor expressing their opposition. The letter reads in part:

“While other states’ bills are aimed squarely at limiting whistleblowing, chilling free speech and keeping the public unaware of animal abuse and food safety problems on factory farms, SB 648 would prevent transparency across all industries…We hope that you will choose to protect the safety of North Carolina’s residents despite pressure from groups like the Chamber of Commerce which, in its support for this bill, misses the fact that a loss of transparency is ultimately bad for business, dangerous for consumers and a violation of this country's values."

The letter was signed by the following groups: A Well Fed World; American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina; The ASPCA® (The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals®); Amnesty International USA; Animal Legal Defense Fund; Animal Welfare Institute; Association of Prosecuting Attorneys; Center for Constitutional Rights; Compassion in World Farming; Compassion Over Killing; Defending Dissent Foundation; Farm Forward; Farm Sanctuary; Food Chain Workers Alliance; Food & Water Watch; Government Accountability Project; The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS); Mercy for Animals (MFA); North Carolina Justice Center; North Carolina Voters for Animal Welfare; Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine; Socially Responsible Agriculture Project; Unitarian Universalist Animal Ministry; United Food & Commercial Workers International Union; and United Support and Memorial for Workplace Fatalities (USMFW).

SB 648, which is scheduled for a hearing tomorrow in the Senate Rules Committee, would criminalize undercover investigations, which have been extremely successful in documenting the inhumane treatment of animals, uncovering crucial health and welfare information, and spurring many groundbreaking reforms. Should this bill become law, these types of investigations—such as the one in 2011 that revealed acts of animal cruelty and public health issues inside a North Carolina turkey factory farm owned by Butterball—would remain hidden from the public. The video that was taken in this case led to the arrests of five employees on felony and misdemeanor animal cruelty charges.

This legislation shares the same language and provisions as similar bills that have been filed across the country, and contains three of the most common elements of ag-gag/anti-whistleblower bills: photography/video bans; punishment for fraudulent job applications; and mandatory reporting of documented activities within a short and arbitrary timeframe. SB 648 was introduced on April 4, the same day that a fifth Butterball employee pled guilty to animal cruelty.

Ann Church, vice president of state affairs for the ASPCA, said: "SB 648 would threaten a wide array of public interests—including animal welfare and food safety—by silencing the very people in a position to document abuse. Lawmakers should focus on achieving accountability for those who are inflicting animal abuse and putting consumers at risk instead of coming up with creative ways to suppress whistleblowers who want to expose those problems. The bill also makes one wonder what exactly North Carolina has to hide."

Sarah Preston, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, said: "The government cannot fine someone for doing something they have a constitutional right to do. Documenting animal cruelty is a form of journalism and expression protected by the First Amendment. Any law seeking to criminalize such behavior—and compel those who engage in it to confess their actions to police—would blatantly violate the freedoms of press and expression, and right against self-incrimination, protected by the Bill of Rights."

David LaBahn, president and CEO of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, said: "SB 648 has potential unintentional negative consequences for the citizens of North Carolina, including the criminalization of ‘good Samaritans’ rightfully attempting to report criminal conduct in the workplace. The creation of new crimes to address other criminal activity will likely cause prosecutors and their law enforcement partners great difficulty in enforcing both this new statute as well as existing North Carolina law."

Vienna Colucci, director of policy for Amnesty International USA, said: "The right to freedom of expression must be protected. There is no hope of stopping abuses if they cannot even be brought to light."

Joann Lo, executive director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance, said: "We strongly oppose SB 648 because this bill would limit the ability of workers, not only in the food system but throughout all industries, from speaking up about dangerous working conditions and practices that threaten their lives, public health, food safety, and animal welfare."

Amanda Hitt, director of the Government Accountability Project's Food Integrity Campaign, said: "Whistleblowers are a necessary component of corporate accountability. Current whistleblower protections in North Carolina are insufficient to protect employees impacted by this proposed law. With the threat of prosecution, the very existence of such a law will pose a threat to truth telling. No bill designed to protect corporate interests should do so at the peril of the public’s right to know the truth about corporate practices that impact the health and safety of their families."

Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, said: "Whistleblowers have repeatedly exposed practices used to raise animals and produce food that endanger public health. By silencing them, this bill would have serious negative consequences for the citizens of North Carolina and suggests that North Carolina businesses and industries have a lot to hide from their customers."

In a 2012 nationwide poll commissioned by the ASPCA, it was revealed that 71 percent of Americans support undercover investigative efforts by animal welfare organizations to expose animal abuse on industrial farms, and 64 percent oppose making such efforts illegal. Additionally, 94 percent of Americans feel that it is important to have measures in place to ensure that food coming from farm animals is safe for people to eat, and 94 percent agree that animals raised for food on farms deserve to be free from abuse and cruelty.

In addition to North Carolina, ag-gag/anti-whistleblower legislation has been introduced this year in Arkansas, California, Indiana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Vermont and Wyoming. No bills have become law.

For more information on this issue, please visit www.aspca.org/Fight-Animal-Cruelty/Advocacy-Center/ag-gag. To join the ASPCA Advocacy Brigade, please visit www.aspca.org/fight-animal-cruelty/advocacy-center.