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Citing The Idaho Decision, Activists Turn Their Ire To North Carolina’s Ag-Gag

Kathleen Masterson
Harvest Public Media
"Ag-gag" refers to a broad spectrum of laws meant to curb undercover recordings in agricultural operations.

Animal rights groups are taking aim at North Carolina.

They’re suing over the state’s so-called “ag-gag” law. The legislation found its way into the crosshairs of a coalition of animal groups, including PETA and the Animal Legal Defense Fund, emboldened by a federal Idaho judge who struck down a similar law in that state in 2015.

Ag-gag is an umbrella term, referring to a broad spectrum of laws. Animal rights advocates say the laws, whichever form they take, are meant to turn undercover investigators into criminals and charge them as such for documenting health and safety violations on farms and ranches. 

There’s been a particularly strong amount of venom for the North Carolina law, which required an override of a gubernatorial veto to get on the books. The fears come from the law’s breadth. It outlaws any employee from recording in a “non-public” area of any workplace, not just a farm. If the employee disseminates any collected footage, that’d be considered a violation of loyalty, and the employee could be sued for civil damages.

Many animal rights activists seek employment at the farms and ranches they investigate to gain access.

North Carolina’s law went into effect Jan. 1, 2016, and the coalition didn’t wait long to challenge it. Humane Society of the U.S. lobbyist Matthew Dominguez predicted the move.

“The groups that were involved with challenging this in Idaho are going to look to the courts to nullify and to strike down the existing ag-gag laws,” Dominguez toldKUNC and Harvest Public Media in September 2015.

The Idaho law was struck down on grounds that it violated the First Amendment.

"Although the State may not agree with the message certain groups seek to convey about Idaho's agricultural production facilities, such as releasing secretly recorded videos of animal abuse to the Internet and calling for boycotts, it cannot deny such groups equal protection of the laws in their exercise of their right to free speech," district court judge B. Lynn Winmill wrote in his August 2015 decision [.pdf].

The farm groups who’ve pushed for the laws say they’re meant to protect farmers from slanderous, agenda-driven animal rights activists, who produce highly edited videos meant to pull on consumers’ heartstrings and exploit a lack of agricultural knowledge.

Ag-gag laws are currently on the books in North Carolina, Montana, Utah, North Dakota, Missouri, Kansas and Iowa.

As KUNC’s managing editor and reporter covering the Colorado River Basin, I dig into stories that show how water issues can both unite and divide communities throughout the Western U.S. I edit and produce feature stories for KUNC and a network of public media stations in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada.
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