Point of View

How the ag-gag bill would make criminals out of do-gooders

May 28, 2013 

The North Carolina legislature may soon make criminals out of journalists and citizens who go underground to document corporate abuses.

Senate Bill 648 would impose fines of up to $50,000 on the kinds of people who, in 2012, secretly recorded cruelty at Butterball turkey operations in North Carolina. Those abuses included employees beating turkeys to death with iron rods. SB 648 would also apply to journalists such as the ABC News investigators who, in 1992, revealed that Food Lion stores in North Carolina were selling decayed meat and cheese that had been gnawed by rats.

Why would lawmakers want to help corporations keep these kinds of abuses secret? SB 648 is part of a nationwide press by business interests to enact “ag-gag” laws that stop citizens from showing what happens inside industrial meat operations. The Butterball horror-show is a good example of what they don’t want people to see. Because SB 648 doesn’t target just agriculture, it would also make a criminal of someone who disclosed environmental abuses, dangerous working conditions or public-health threats.

The bill targets fraud in job applications. Because corporations don’t exactly welcome activists with camera phones into their facilities, investigators tend to get jobs with the companies they want to investigate, then take pictures and videos once they’re inside. SB 648 would punish job applicants who don’t reveal that they’re also undercover investigators. The crime is applying for a job in order to record and use images or other data from the workplace.

The law is broad enough to cover some activities that plainly should be illegal, like corporate espionage – stealing business secrets to help a competitor. No one should have a problem with that.

Criminalizing underground investigations is different. It’s true that lying on a job application isn’t honest. It hurts only companies, though, if they are doing something illegal, shocking or disgusting. The public has an interest in knowing those things. Companies are more likely to do the right thing if they know they can’t expect to keep abuses secret. SB 648 would make secret abuses more likely.

To be fair, underground activism isn’t the only way to protect the public’s interest in knowing what corporations are doing behind their walls, and it isn’t even the best. Making secret documentaries can be dangerous – especially on a slaughterhouse floor – and companies do have a fair interest in knowing what they’re getting when they hire employees.

It would be better for controversial industries, like slaughterhouses, to install web-cams at key points in their operations so that anyone who wanted to know what was happening inside could just go online and take a look. A law requiring those web-cams – call it an open-slaughterhouse law – would be a step forward.

Until North Carolina gets an open slaughterhouse law, though, citizens who want to show what’s happening behind corporate walls will have to find another way inside. They’re taking risks to show the public scenes that corporations would rather keep secret. We shouldn’t make them criminals for that.

Jedediah Purdy is professor of law at Duke Law School.

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