Under the Dome

Animal welfare, whistleblower groups sue over N.C. workplace bill

About fifty protestors don blindfolds and gags as they gather at the N.C. Capitol in Raleigh to protest an Ag-Gag bill that would make it more difficult to report cases of animal mistreatment in this May 27, 2015, file photo.
About fifty protestors don blindfolds and gags as they gather at the N.C. Capitol in Raleigh to protest an Ag-Gag bill that would make it more difficult to report cases of animal mistreatment in this May 27, 2015, file photo. cseward@newsobserver.com

A coalition of national interest groups sued in federal court in North Carolina on Wednesday to strike down a new law meant to stop people from taking jobs in order to expose workplace conditions.

The law, which took effect on Jan. 1, was the result of unsuccessful efforts to pass an “ag-gag” bill protecting agricultural operations from undercover investigations by animal welfare groups. Last session, the bill was broadened to cover anyone who gains employment with the intent to make public unsafe or inhumane conditions, or to steal data, documents or other material.

Employers can now sue those workers for punitive damages of up to $5,000 a day. A number of advocacy groups fought the bill, including the AARP, which said it would discourage reporting of elder abuse in rest homes.

Gov. Pat McCrory vetoed the bill in May, saying it didn’t do enough to protect legitimate whistleblowers, and that it contradicted another new law, which required workers to report abuse of mentally ill and disabled patients. The General Assembly handily overrode the veto. Sponsors argued that employees who happen to discover poor workplace conditions would still be protected.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Greensboro, contends the law violates provisions of the state and U.S. constitutions, including protections of free speech, right to petition, equal protection and due process, and also that the law is too vague.

The complaint repeatedly refers to the legislation as the “Anti-Sunshine Law.” Plaintiffs are organizations that say they planned to investigate reports of abusive workplace conditions, but now cannot out of fear of expensive litigation.

Those suing are People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Center for Food Safety, Animal Legal Defense Fund, Farm Sanctuary, Food & Water Watch, and Government Accountability Project.

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