RALEIGH, N.C.––The North Carolina legislature on June 3, 2015 overturned governor Pat McCrory’s May 29, 2015 veto of an “ag-gag” bill, HB 405, passed by the state legislature 10 days earlier.
Overturned by votes of 79-36 in the state house of representatives and 33-15 in the state senate, HB 405 will now take effect, making North Carolina the eighth state to introduce an “ag-gag,” and the sixth to pass an “ag-gag” law in specific response to undercover videos made by animal advocates to expose animal abuse in factory farms and slaughterhouses.
HB 405 comes into force after two years of debate that originated with a March 2013 Mercy for Animals undercover exposé of abuses at three Butterball turkey suppliers.
“Those abuses included employees beating turkeys to death with iron rods,” recalled Jedidiah Purdy of the Raleigh News & Observer when the bill was introduced in original form in May 2013.
As well as providing fines of up to $50,000 animal advocates who take jobs under false pretenses in order to do undercover videotaping, Purdy pointed out, HB 405 applies 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.”
“Ag-gag” opposed by AARP
Following the examples of Arizona governor Doug Ducey and Tennessee governor Bill Haslam, who vetoed similar bills earlier in 2015 and in 2014, respectively, McCrory vetoed HB 405 with an explanatory statement which hinted that he might eventually sign an “ag-gag” measure if it could avoid the opposition of media and consumer advocacy organizations, especially AARP.
Said AARP in an open letter to McCrory urging the veto, “Originally intended to address the concerns of the agriculture and poultry industries, House Bill 405 now casts too wide of a net and applies to any business’s employees who may seek to reveal illegal and unethical practices. House Bill 405 will create new risks for workers, older adults, families and children because it extends to all industries including nursing homes, hospitals, group homes, medical practices, charter and private schools, daycare centers, and so forth.”
McCrory: “I support the purpose of this bill”
Wrote McCrory, “While I support the purpose of this bill, I believe it does not adequately protect or give clear guidance to honest employees who uncover criminal activity. I am concerned that subjecting these employees to potential civil penalties will create an environment that discourages them from reporting illegal activities.
“This bill is intended to address a valid concern of our state’s businesses,” McCrory continued, “to discourage those bad actors who seek employment with the intent to engage in corporate espionage or act as an undercover investigator,” a practice that McCrory identified as “a particular problem for our agricultural industry.
“I encourage the General Assembly to reconsider this bill as soon as possible,” McCrory finished, “and add protections for those employees who report illegal activities directly and confidentially to the proper authorities. I stand ready to work with legislators during this process, and I am very optimistic that we can reach a solution that addresses the concerns of our North Carolina employers while still protecting honest employees.”
HSUS credits coalition for victory
Despite the possibility that the McCrory veto might be overridden, and the likelihood that a North Carolina “ag-gag” bill would be re-introduced soon in some form, Humane Society of the U.S. president Wayne Pacelle called the veto “the culmination of a major boots-on-the-ground campaign by The HSUS, including television ads that called on the governor to veto the bill.
“The AARP, American SPCA, Mercy for Animals, Compassion Over Killing, The Humane League, and other groups weighed in with their own memberships,” Pacelle acknowledged, “and the governor’s office heard from many North Carolina constituents who don’t want cruelty to be hidden from the public.
“The Carolina Farm Stewardship Association delivered a letter from 47 North Carolina-based farmers to the governor. The News & Observer, Charlotte Observer, Fayetteville Observer, and News & Record all editorialized emphatically in favor of a veto,” Pacelle continued. “A recent survey showed that 74% of North Carolinians support undercover investigations of animal abuse and food safety hazards, which this bill would have prevented.”
While North Carolina media mostly mentioned the Mercy for Animals investigations of Butterball facilities as providing the impetus toward passage of an “ag-gag” bill, Pacelle reminded that, “In the last four years, we’ve conducted 20 puppy mill raids [in North Carolina], partnering with dedicated local animal welfare organizations, reminding citizens and lawmakers that there is a serious problem in the Tarheel State.”
Arizona “ag-gag” veto
Arizona governor Doug Ducey warned in a policy statement during the 2014 election campaign that he would not endorse the Arizona “ag-gag” bill, HB 2150, which went far past the scope of the North Carolina bill.
Ducey’s veto of HB 2150 has so far held up.
Summarized Humane Society Legislative Fund president Mike Markarian, “It had whistleblower-suppression implications that could have prevented food safety issues and animal abuse on factory farms from being exposed,” but beyond that, “It would have removed farm animals from the regular animal cruelty code and put them in a separate code, where the industry could more readily weaken those standards in the future. It stripped municipalities and counties of their right to promulgate stronger animal welfare protections. It would have removed the crimes of ‘abandonment’ and ‘medical neglect’ for livestock and poultry, placing a heavier burden on prosecutors and law enforcement when they confront these situations.”
Said Ducey the 2014 gubernatorial candidate, “I do not support exemptions in our anti-cruelty codes for any class of domesticated animals. No animal should be the victim of unspeakable cruelty.”
Ducey the governor on March 30, 2015 cast the first veto of his term to kill HB 2150––at least for the time being.
Backed by ALEC
Reported Julia Shumway of the Arizona Republic, “Representative Brenda Barton (R-Payson), the sponsor of HB 2150 and the 2014 [version of the same bill], reported receiving a gift of at least $500 from the conservative, corporate-backed American Legislative Exchange Council.
In 2003,” Shumway recalled, “ALEC developed the [federal] Animal & Ecological Terrorism Act, which prohibits entering an animal facility with the intent to record and requires anyone who violates the bill to register as an ecological terrorist in the same way a sex offender registers with a state. [Ag-gag ] “laws passed in recent years in Idaho, Iowa, New Mexico and Utah are similar to ALEC’s model legislation.”
Idaho “ag-gag” challenged in court
Opponents of the Idaho “ag-gag” law who are challenging it in federal court on constitutional grounds are currently awaiting a ruling from U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill on a request for summary judgment presented by Animal Legal Defense Fund attorney Justin Moreau.
The request was heard in Boise, the state capital, on April 28, 2015.
Winmill previously took 10 weeks to rule on a request for dismissal filed by the defense, before on September 5, 2014 dismissing the portion of the lawsuit that named Idaho governor C.L. “Butch” Otter “because plaintiffs are ‘not free to randomly select a state official to sue in order to challenge an allegedly unconstitutional statute,’” reported Food Safety News. Winmill also threw out an argument against part of the Idaho “ag-gag” law that prohibits intentional damage or injury to agricultural facilities, operations, livestock, crops personnel, equipment, buildings, or premises.
But Winmill ruled that the remainder of the constitutional challenge to the “ag-gag” law could proceed, since “Laws that restrict more protected speech than necessary violate the First Amendment.”
“Winmill also said ALDF’s Equal Protection claim and preemption claims are ‘ripe for review,’” Food Safety News added.
Noted Associated Press writer Ryan Struyk, “Idaho is one of seven states with ag gag legislation, according to the American SPCA. Similar litigation—also prompted by the Animal Legal Defense Fund—is currently underway in Utah.”
The Idaho “ag-gag” law was passed in February 2014, Struyk continued, nearly two years “after Mercy for Animals released a video showing workers at Bettencourt Dairies stomping, beating, dragging, and sexually abusing the cows.”
Bettencourt Dairies owner Luis Bettencourt recently sold Dry Creek Dairy, the subsidiary where the Mercy for Animals undercover video was made. In 2012, after seeing the video, Bettencourt fired employees Javier Victor Rojas-Loayza, Jesus Garza, and Jose Acensio, who were all criminally charged.
Rojas-Loayza was in June 2014 sentenced to serve 180 days in jail, with nine days to be spent on a sheriff’s work detail, 170 days suspended and one day of credit. Magistrate Judge Calvin Campbell also barred Rojas-Loayza from working with animals during a two-year probation.
Garza earlier was sentenced to a year on probation and given credit for 102 days he served in jail while awaiting trial. Campbell also banned him from working with animals during his probation and fined him $500, with $250 suspended.
The third defendant, Acensio, charged with two counts of misdemeanor animal cruelty, has not been apprehended.