Two bills introduced in the General Assembly would make it easier for North Carolina businesses to punish workers who make secret video or audio recordings in non-public areas of their employer’s property.
Senate Bill 433 and a companion bill in the House would allow the property owner to sue a worker for $5,000 in damages for each day the worker made the recordings, as well as other damages and attorneys’ fees.
Sen. Brent Jackson, a Republican from Autryville, said the bill is intended to protect the rights of private property owners by “putting teeth” into the state’s trespassing law.
“This bill has widespread support among the business community, as it provides a civil, compensatory remedy for victims of organized retail theft, corporate espionage and other malicious acts,” Jackson said.
But critics say the bill violates the U.S. Constitution’s protections of free speech. Mercy For Animals, an advocacy group based in Los Angeles that has used undercover videos made in North Carolina meat processing plants, calls the legislation an “ag-gag” bill, meant to stop undercover investigations of animal cruelty or food safety by animal welfare groups and the news media.
“Rather than strengthening laws to protect animal welfare, these legislators are protecting corporate criminals,” said Mercy For Animals spokesman Matt Rice. “It’s these undercover investigations that reveal things like pollution and animal cruelty. This would shield these companies from criminal liability.”
The Senate bill is the latest version of several pieces of similar legislation introduced in recent years by Jackson, a melon farmer who is active on agriculture issues. Its companion bill is House Bill 405, sponsored by Rep. John Szoka, a Republican from Fayetteville.
The bill targets anyone who gets a job in order to access non-public areas to take secret recordings and use the information “to breach the person’s duty of loyalty to the employer.”
Anyone who “directs, assists, compensates or induces” another to act in this way would be held jointly liable under the proposed law. The bill says nothing about outside groups that might use or broadcast the recordings, including the news media.
Law enforcement investigations are exempt, and the bill does not seek to punish legitimate “whistle-blower” employees who notice and report illegal acts.
Jackson thinks the bill, which has bipartisan support, has a better chance of passing this time because he has had more opportunity to discuss its impact and importance with his colleagues.
“I have found that, when I explain the intent of this legislation to my fellow senators directly, they are receptive,” Jackson said.
Rice says he thinks the bill will fail, like its predecessors, because people care about animal welfare and freedom of speech. If the bills pass, he said, there would be a legal challenge based on the First Amendment.
Rice claims the bills are in response to his organization’s undercover video investigations in North Carolina, including a 2011 hidden camera investigation at a Hoke County Butterball farm where it discovered workers kicking, dragging and throwing turkeys.
A state agriculture official was ultimately arrested and pleaded guilty to impeding a police investigation after she alerted the farm to the video. In addition, a number of Butterball workers were charged with animal cruelty.
Two weeks ago, Mercy For Animals released what it claims is undercover footage from a poultry slaughterhouse in Dobson. Its investigation revealed nothing illegal under current federal regulations, which it claims allow chickens to suffer unnecessarily before they are killed.
When asked if this bill is in response to Mercy For Animals’ latest video, Jackson said he was not aware of the film.
The N.C. Farm Bureau, which lobbies on behalf of farmers in the legislature, declined to comment on the bills.