The current General Assembly will never be confused with being consumer friendly, but even by its corporate-protectionist standards its passage of the Property Protection Act was a shock.
The law passed in 2015 and better known as the “ag-gag” law allows employers to sue employees who conduct undercover investigations while at work. The stifling of whistleblowers was so misbegotten that even the usually pliant Republican Gov. Pat McCrory vetoed it. His own party promptly overrode that rejection.
Now the law is going where so much of the work of this reckless legislature ends up – in court. A group of animal rights and consumer protection organizations filed suit in federal court Wednesday. They contend that the law violates the constitutional rights of free speech and the civil rights of employees.
The lawsuit stands a strong chance of succeeding. Not only does the law raise constitutional questions, it appears to contradict other statutes protecting whistle-blowers and it offers employers blanket protection against offenses that are too vaguely defined.
But the law’s most serious defect isn’t legal, it’s ethical. It’s a disgrace that legislators elected to represent the interests of their constituents instead think it’s more important to shield food processing companies whose cruel and often unsanitary treatment of pigs, poultry and other animals could not withstand public exposure. Discouraging workers from documenting nasty workplace practices also poses a danger to people living in institutional settings. Indeed it was this latter effect that moved the governor to veto a bill that otherwise would suit his pro-corporate agenda.
Supporters of the new law say it is not aimed at traditional whistleblowers who take their concerns to the proper authorities. Rather, they say, it is aimed at activists who join a company simply to spy and then go to a news outlet with their secret recordings. But this distinction doesn’t hold up. Going to the authorities or going to the media is ultimately the same thing.
If companies don’t want to be exposed for mistreating animals or people, they shouldn’t mistreat animals or people. That is as simple as this law is wrong. The court should strike it down as a law that allows the violation of basic rights in order to protect abusers of people and animals.