A House committee Tuesday passed a bill that critics say would punish whistleblowers and stymie investigative reporters.
The bill is designed to protect property owners by enacting civil penalties for people who take or record information “that substantially interferes” with the rights of the property owner.
It would also hold liable anybody who “assists … or induces” a person to do so.
“It’s an attempt to dry up sources who would talk to (a reporter) or be inclined to talk about illegal conduct,” said Mark Prak, an attorney who represents the N.C. Association of Broadcasters and the N.C. Press Association. “Their desire is to keep people who get the news from access to certain kind of sources.”
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Surreptitious videos taken by whistleblowers have exposed sometimes criminal violations in industries such as agriculture. Videos have exposed instances of animal cruelty, mishandling of food and violations of environmental regulations.
Supporters of the bill say it’s needed to protect property rights, particularly in an age when phones can serve as recording devices and information posted online can reach a global audience in seconds.
Democratic Rep. Rick Glazier introduced amendments that he said would protect most whistleblowers and media investigations. He said the only people subject to prosecution would be those who gain employment for the sole purpose of gathering private information.
Republican sponsor John Szoka of Fayetteville said, “I believe we have found the appropriate balance here.” The bill now goes to the full House, which is scheduled to vote Wednesday.
The changes did little to mollify critics. They said the whistleblower protections are too narrow.
“This legislation would almost guarantee lucrative damages for employers whose employees blow the whistle on illegal or unethical activities,” said Chloe Waterman of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. “It would undermine consumer confidence in agriculture and it would protect criminals.”
Genell Pridgen, who identified herself as a ninth generation family farmer from Greene County, said the bill “makes us all look like we have something to hide.”
“This bill would undercut those North Carolina family farmers who are trying hard to do things the right way.”