Beyond Ag-Gag: One North Carolina Law Is Bringing the War on Whistleblowers to a New Level

A recent study published by the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution finds that laws designed to protect the environment and biodiversity from the harmful impacts of human activities are under assault around the globe.

On June 15, North Carolina’s state legislature overrode Republican Gov. Pat McCrory’s veto of that state’s controversial “Ag-Gag” bill HB 405, also known as the Property Protection Act. The earliest bills of this kind, which target industry whistleblowers, activists and in some cases journalists, were introduced in the 1990s when the Animal Liberation Front was said to be targeting labs engaged in animal testing. The bills’ legal scope has widened over time to include factory farms as well as most other industries involving animal products.

But unlike the bills passed in seven other states over the years – including in Wyoming, Missouri and Washington where they specifically target animal rights activists – North Carolina’s HB 405 takes things to a whole new level, criminalizing whistleblowing against any and all businesses. Based on “model legislation” provided shortly after 9/11 by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and originally called the “Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act,” HB 405 signals a new brand of anti-democratic legislation that could proliferate, state by state, in the years to come.

ALEC brings together dues-paying state politicians and corporate or special interest groups to craft a variety of rightwing legislation – from protections for extractive industries to voter suppression laws. Although technically a non-profit, ALEC is extremely partisan, with most of its membership coming from the Republican Party. Included among ALEC’s alumni are Wisconsin Governor and now presidential candidate Scott Walker and House Speaker John Boehner.

With an increasingly unhinged rightwing in Washington unlikely to move their agenda forward federally, corporations like Exxon Mobil, Cargill and Koch Industries have come to rely on ALEC to set precedents with their model legislation in as many states as possible.

So just which businesses are covered under the Property Protection Act? Among the most alarming are elder care facilities, day cares and charter schools. And according to some, this may in part be merely a ploy to shift the spotlight away from Big Ag’s involvement pushing HB 405 and similar bills.

“The ag folks know that if they only give themselves this protection from being exposed, it further proves they have something to hide,” Matthew Dominguez, the public policy director for Farm Animal Protection at the Humane Society, said in a recent interview. “So, in recent years, they’ve intentionally expanded the reach very broadly to cover all business to cover their tracks.”

Although defenders of the North Carolina bill have claimed their goal is not to criminalize whistleblowers in general, an editorial that ran in the Charlotte Observer before Gov. McCrory’s veto was overturned argued this simply isn’t the case.

“The intent of the bill was made clear when Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake, offered an amendment. He would have given employees protection if the activity they recorded was illegal. Senate leaders wouldn’t even allow a vote on that,” read the editorial.

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