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Public Justice Representing Plaintiffs in Challenge to North Carolina ‘Anti-Sunshine’ Law

Public Justice Representing Plaintiffs in Challenge to North Carolina ‘Anti-Sunshine’ Law

photo via Eric Spiegel on Flickr

Law challenged on First Amendment, Equal Protection, Due Process Grounds

A coalition of animal protection, consumer rights, food safety, and whistleblower protection groups is challenging a North Carolina law designed to deter whistleblowers and undercover investigators from publicizing information about corporate misconduct. Public Justice is representing all of the groups in the coalition.

Under the law, organizations and journalists who conduct undercover investigations, and individuals who expose improper or criminal conduct by North Carolina employers, are susceptible to suit and substantial damages if they make such evidence available to the public or the press.

According to the complaint, the law’s purpose is to punish those “who set out to investigate employers and property owners’ conduct because they believe there is value in exposing employers’ and property owners’ unethical or illegal behavior to the disinfecting sunlight of public scrutiny.”

Public Justice Food Safety & Health Attorney David Muraskin said today that the law “is an extreme measure designed to gag North Carolinians that was opposed by conservatives, liberals, and moderates alike. It has not only a serious chilling effect on agricultural whistleblowers, but is broad enough to prevent reporting abuse of infants and the elderly. It strikes at the core American value of an open society and is unconstitutional.”

The state legislature overrode a veto of the bill by Governor Pat McCrory in June 2015, and the law took effect on January 1.

The North Carolina law is part of a growing number of so-called ‘ag-gag laws’ passed by state legislators across the country, two of which have been challenged by Public Justice and its allies. 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 version is written so broadly that it would also ban undercover investigations of all private entities, including nursing homes and daycare centers. The North Carolina law threatens to silence conscientious employees who witness and wish to report wrongdoing.

“We believe the challenge we’re filing today will result in Ag-Gag laws going zero-for-three in the courts,” Public Justice Executive Director Paul Bland wrote today.

Today’s legal challenge is the first in the nation to make claims under both the U.S. Constitution and a state constitution. Last year, a federal court overturned Idaho’s ag-gag law on the basis that it violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments, and in late December a federal judge ruled that a challenge to Wyoming’s law must go forward, citing “serious concerns” about that law’s constitutionality.

The North Carolina plaintiffs are represented by David S. Muraskin and Leslie A. Brueckner of Public Justice in Washington, D.C.; and Daniel K. Bryson and Jeremy Williams of Whitfield, Bryson & Mason LLP in Raleigh, N.C.

The following attorneys are representing their own organization: Matthew Strugar of PETA in Los Angeles, Calif.; Matthew Liebman of the Animal Legal Defense Fund in Cotati, Calif.,; Cristina R. Stella and Paige Tomaselli of the Center for Food Safety in Sacramento, Calif.; Scott Edwards of Food and Water Watch in Washington, D.C.; and Sarah L. Nash of the Government Accountability Project in Washington, D.C.

Justin Marceau of the University of Denver-Sturm College of Law is Of Counsel to the Animal Legal Defense Fund.

The plaintiffs’ joint statement in full:

North Carolina’s Anti-Sunshine Law seriously hinders North Carolinians’ ability to know the truth about misconduct, mistreatment and corruption happening in virtually every industry, including nursing homes, factory farms, financial institutions, daycare centers and more. It’s an extreme law forced on citizens over a governor’s veto by lawmakers who bowed to pressure from corporate lobbyists. This law blatantly violates citizens’ rights to free speech, a free press, and to petition their government, and violates the Equal Protection Clause. It places the safety of our families, our food supply, and animals at risk, and it attempts to bully and threaten those working for transparency, free speech and the public good. Our lawsuit is being brought for the sake of the health and safety of all citizens of North Carolina. We are confident the law will be found unconstitutional and that a victory in North Carolina will deter other state legislatures from repeating North Carolina’s mistake.