After “stepping on toes,” Gov. Pat McCrory’s favorite phrase may be “common sense.” He leans on it often to cast himself as an executive making decisions based on doing the logical and necessary thing rather than being guided by blind partisanship.
Now the governor’s commitment to common sense is being put to the test. On Tuesday, he signed into law a bill that easily passed the General Assembly. It’s informally called “Burt’s Law” in recognition of how it aims to prevent future instances of what happened to Burt Powell, a developmentally disabled man who was sexually abused by a manager in a Conover nursing home.
The law requires employees at facilities caring for vulnerable people to report incidents of abuse within 24 hours to the Department of Social Services, local law enforcement and the local district attorney's office. Employees who fail to report abuses can be charged with a misdemeanor.
It’s an excellent law. Burt’s parents, Tom and Laurie Powell, did well to push for it to protect others from what happened to their son. Burt was there for the signing and got a hug from McCrory. The governor said during the signing ceremony, “There is no excuse for staying silent if you see abuse. We’re all going to have to trust someone sometime in our life, but if anyone within these homes betrays that trust, everyone suffers.”
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But now McCrory, the compassionate and vigilant champion of the Burt Powells of the world, has a problem. It’s called House Bill 405. It carries the simple title “Property Protection Act.” Opponents call it the “ag-gag bill” because they say it would silence whistle-blowers who secretly record images or sounds of animals being mistreated at factory farms and meat-processing plants. What it really should be called is the, “Forget Burt, protect businesses that are cruel to people and animals.”
The governor said Wednesday that he’s still pondering whether to sign the bill, let it become law without his signature or veto it.
What’s to ponder? Veto it.
HB 405 is deficient in its drafting and in its effect. Its language is too broad and ambivalent, and its consequences could increase the mistreatment of animals and people. Supporters say the proposed law would protect businesses from activists who pose as employees to collect images and information that could cast a business in an unfavorable light. They think businesses have enough to do complying with regulations without having to worry about activists revealing an unappealing but necessary process behind a product.
The proposed law would allow a company to collect damages of $5,000 for every day an interloper or a regular company employee enters “a nonpublic area” to collect evidence of actions he or she considers wrong. It also would hold liable anyone who assists the gathering of such evidence.
The law aims to protect livestock operations that have been targeted by groups that support the humane treatment of animals. That’s a dubious shield in itself, but the broad language of the law could also discourage whistle-blowers in settings where people are treated inhumanely. That would contradict the thrust of Burt’s Law.
Laws should have a legitimate purpose. They should respond to a real need. And, at their best, they should protect the weak from abuse by the strong. HB 405 has no purpose beyond protecting businesses from meddlers and critics. There are already trespassing and slander laws for that. This bill responds to no need other than to protect businesses that should be embarrassed by their activities from being embarrassed. It would protect the strong from the helpless.
The same governor who signed Burt’s Law can’t let HB 405 become law. It’s common sense.