Briefing Begins in Fourth Circuit Suit Challenging NC Law to Stop Undercover Farm Investigations

The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the Animal Legal Defense Fund, and other environmental and animal rights organizations filed their opening brief on Tuesday in the Fourth Circuit arguing that a North Carolina law, which deters whistleblowing about workplace activities in matters of public concern, is unconstitutional. 

The law, North Carolina General Statute 99A-2, according to the plaintiffs “directly regulates speech” and is “aimed at public advocacy.” They further cited that the district court already ruled in its favor deciding that the law illegally restricts the freedom of speech. The lawsuit began in 2016 with the plaintiffs’ North Carolina Middle District Court complaint.

In the present brief, the organizations claimed that the first amendment protections still apply on private property. They explained that a “central tenet” of PETA and the Animal Legal Defense Fund is to facilitate investigations that expose cruelty to animals; these are frequently done undercover in farms or laboratories, which are not available to the public. 

The law, which is sometimes known as an ag-gag law, says that an employee would be liable to pay for any damages to the owner if an employee “intentionally enters the nonpublic areas of an employer’s premises for a reason other than a bona fide intent of seeking or holding employment or doing business with the employer and thereafter without authorization records images or sound occurring within an employer’s premises and uses the recording to breach the person’s duty of loyalty to the employer.” 

The plaintiffs purported that the defendants’ arguments in favor of the law are “fanciful” and are asking for “numerous layers of Supreme Court precedent” to be ignored. They claimed that “the amount of briefing does not reflect the difficulty of the issues, but the lengths to which Defendants must go to try to avoid the dictated result. The Court should affirm the district court’s conclusion (that) the challenged provisions violate the First Amendment.” 

The plaintiffs, which are also the appellees and cross appellants, are represented by Public Justice, P.C.; Whitfield Bryson; and individual lawyers. The defendants include John Stein, Attorney General of North Carolina; Dr. Kevin Guskiewicz, chancellor of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill; and the North Carolina Farm Bureau Federation, Inc.