N.C. shooting the messenger

The Observer editorial board

An N.C. “ag-gag” bill would protect poultry plants, and all businesses.
An N.C. “ag-gag” bill would protect poultry plants, and all businesses. AP FILE PHOTO

Let’s say your elderly mother lives in a nursing home. The employees’ treatment of some of the residents is atrocious: They berate them; they refuse to change soiled sheets; they handle them roughly.

An appalled worker secretly uses her smartphone to film the mistreatment and uses the video to expose the wrongdoing.

She’s a hero, right? Not to N.C. legislators. To them, she’s disloyal, and is liable to the nursing home owner for damages.

One would think that lawmakers would clamp down on illegal activity at businesses. Instead, they are clamping down on those who would expose it.

Only Gov. Pat McCrory can fix this now. House Bill 405 passed the Senate last week and now sits in McCrory’s inbox. He should veto it.

The bill says that an employee who uncovers damaging activity by taking video or making a recording, or taking or copying documents, can face severe penalties for hurting the business: “equitable relief,” compensatory damages, attorneys’ fees and “exemplary damages” of $5,000 per day.

That’s for action that damages the business owner. The bill makes no mention of the business’s action that damages the public.

The intent of the bill was made clear when Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake, offered an amendment. He would have given employees protection if the activity they recorded was illegal. Senate leaders wouldn’t even allow a vote on that.

Such anti-whistleblower laws are making their way through conservative legislatures across the country. They are frequently known as “ag-gag” laws, because they protect agricultural operations – such as poultry plants and hog farms – from do-gooder employees. North Carolina’s bill is even worse in that it encompasses all businesses, such as day cares and nursing homes, not just agricultural plants.

This bill is flawed for many reasons. It punishes the person who reveals the illegal act, rather than the business that commits it. It smears everyone with the same brush of suspicion, including those responsible businesses who play by the rules. And it raises constitutional questions, limiting a person’s free speech rights based on the content of the speech, even if it’s truthful.

Supporters of the bill say it protects businesses from activist groups who could have an undercover employee reveal damaging information. This, though, goes further than protecting trade secrets or other private information. Current law already protects such things. This bill targets those who reveal illegal activity that could harm workers or the public. We should instead be encouraging such revelations.

Most North Carolinians and scrupulous business owners oppose this bill. Gov. McCrory should ship it back to the legislature.