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Court Rejects States’ Argument, Allows Federal Constitutional Challenge to N.C. ‘Anti-Sunshine’ Law To Proceed

Court Rejects States’ Argument, Allows Federal Constitutional Challenge to N.C. ‘Anti-Sunshine’ Law To Proceed

The United States District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina has rejected the state’s motion to dismiss a federal constitutional challenge to North Carolina’s anti-sunshine law, concluding that plaintiffs have successfully pled the statute violates the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause. The suit will now proceed to summary judgment where North Carolina will be compelled to justify the law. The anti-sunshine law was designed to deter whistleblowers and undercover investigators from publicizing information about corporate misconduct, and a coalition including animal welfare, press freedom, food safety, and government watchdog groups challenged the law’s constitutionality. Today, the court has ruled in the groups’ favor, marking the seventh time a court has rejected states’ defenses of so-called “ag-gag” legislation, and the fourth time this year.

The North Carolina law imposes civil penalties for any individual or organization that exposes illegal operations at any North Carolina employer’s operations, including industrial agriculture facilities operating in the state. Lawmakers in North Carolina, which is home to some of the largest such operations in the country, moved to shield these corporations from liability for such infractions by threatening the First Amendment rights of advocates, the media, and watchdog organizations. Under the law, investigators who expose improper or criminal conduct by North Carolina employers are susceptible to suit and substantial damages if they made any such evidence available to the public or the press. The state legislature overrode a veto of the bill by Governor Pat McCrory (R) in June 2015, and the law took effect in January 2016.

“With today’s ruling, the district court becomes the latest to put states on notice that their desire to shield corporate interests from any accountability is not sufficient to trump the freedom of speech ,” said David Muraskin, food project attorney for Public Justice. “This ruling ensures that North Carolina will be called to account for its decision to advantage secrecy over individuals’ rights and safety. The very businesses where transparency can mean the difference between life or death – such as daycare centers, nursing homes, and industrial slaughterhouses – should not be allowed to hide their illegal and unethical behaviors from the public. We’re grateful the district court’s ruling calls so we can finally vindicate the public’s right to know.”

The North Carolina law is part of a growing number of so-called “ag-gag laws” passed by state legislatures across the country. The bills, which are pushed by lobbyists for corporate agriculture companies, are an attempt to escape scrutiny over unsafe practices and animal abuses by threatening liability for those who expose these improper and, in many cases, illegal practices. North Carolina’s law, however, is one of the most expansive, covering industries from puppy mills, to old age homes, to military hospitals. As a result, it was opposed by an uncommonly broad coalition, including AARP and the Wounded Warriors Project.

The plaintiffs in the suit, represented by Public Justice, are People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the Center for Food Safety, Animal Legal Defense Fund, Farm Sanctuary, Food & Water Watch, the Government Accountability Project, Farm Forward, and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).

The plaintiffs are represented in this appeal by David S. Muraskin and Leslie A. Brueckner of Public Justice in Washington, D.C and Oakland, Calif..; Daniel K. Bryson, Jeremy Williams, and Pat Wallace of Whitfield, Bryson & Mason LLP in Raleigh, N.C; and in-house counsel for plaintiff organizations.