Under the Dome

Employers could sue employees who snoop, steal, under proposed bill

Legislation that would allow businesses to sue employees who steal merchandise, data or other records, or who covertly record audio or video on the premises, was approved by a House committee Tuesday.

Similar legislation has been debated over the past two years that was aimed at preventing undercover investigations of farms by reporters or animal welfare advocates – dubbed "ag-gag" laws. But the bill’s sponsors this year, along with a supporting Democrat, said this proposal is not about that.

Instead, House Bill 405 broadly affects any employer. Rep. John Szoka, a Republican from Fayetteville, said it wouldn’t impede news media investigations nor whistleblowers. An amendment from Rep. Rick Glazier, a Democrat from Fayetteville, specified the bill would prevent employees from using unauthorized recordings to “breach their duty of loyalty to their employer.”

Glazier agreed it wasn’t aimed at legitimate undercover agricultural probes. He said it was still consistent with the federal court decision involving Food Lion and ABC News, which held that journalists who lie on employment applications to investigate on private property aren’t protected by the First Amendment.

But a representative of news media organizations said he wasn’t convinced by lawmakers’ reassurances, and an official with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals flatly disagreed.

"With all due respect, we do consider this is an ag-gag bill in the truest sense of the term," Chloe Waterman of the group said.

She said undercover investigations have protected animals and food safety, and that the bill would undermine public confidence in the food supply.

The bill goes to the full House on Wednesday.