The Wilson Times

Thursday, May 30, 2013 8:56 PM

Editorial: Bill protects animal abusers

White feathers are stained with blood. Faceless workers throw turkeys to the ground, slam them into the sides of metal cages and drag them by their necks.

The hidden-camera video captured at a Butterball factory farm outside Shannon shows birds bleeding from open sores and scar tissue lining empty eye sockets.

Undercover investigators from the nonprofit group Mercy for Animals took jobs at the turkey farm in order to document the shocking and sickening abuse in November 2011. If a few misguided state senators have their way, the animal abusers would be shielded and those who document the abuse would be branded lawbreakers.

Senate Bill 648 seeks to punish those who "make false statements or representations or fail to disclose requested information as part of an employment application” in order to make video or audio recordings or access and duplicate company records.

Those guilty of "employment fraud,” a new crime the bill seeks to create, face a $10,000 fine for a first offense and a $50,000 fine for subsequent offenses.

In a cringeworthy example of Orwellian newspeak, SB 648 is titled the N.C. Commerce Protection Act. Its opponents have given it a catchier moniker — the ag-gag bill, since it amounts to a government gag order on agricultural whistleblowers.

Not only does SB 648 put undercover investigators in the crosshairs, it actually would protect animal abusers from prosecution for the crimes that advocates capture on tape.

"No confidential information or any other information obtained from a recording turned over to local law enforcement…shall be admissible in any criminal proceeding,” the bill states, "…nor shall it be used to initiate or facilitate the prosecution of an offense under this section.”

Last month, the fifth Butterball turkey farm employee pleaded guilty to animal abuse charges in Hoke County. If SB 648 had been law in 2011, the turkey torturers would face no legal consequences and the workers who filmed them would face stiff fines.

The high-dollar penalties function as a powerful deterrent to would-be whistleblowers who otherwise might record and expose animal abuse. SB 648 is a serious threat to free-speech rights that likely violates the First Amendment.

Whether it’s OK to leave employment with an advocacy group off a job application in order to document abuse is a moral and ethical question best left to the individual conscience. It should not be a matter of state law.

The Supreme Court struck down a federal law making it a crime to lie about receiving military medals in June 2012, finding that exaggerations, embellishments and even bald-faced whoppers often enjoy constitutional protection. We believe the courts would take a dim view of North Carolina lawmakers punishing lies of omission between private parties.

Sen. Brent Jackson, an Autryville Republican, introduced the bill along with Sens. Wesley Meredith, R-Fayetteville, Jim Davis, R-Franklin, and Jerry Tillman, R-Archdale. While SB 648 is a Republican-backed bill, it is by no means conservative. This measure seeks to expand government’s role in North Carolinians’ work lives and further entangles the state in private employer-employee relationships to advance questionable interests of secrecy.

Executives who believe an undercover investigation resulted in a false portrayal of their companies or revealed trade secrets already have recourse through the civil court system. If a zealous whistleblower’s actions have caused undue harm, a jury can decide to award damages.

Most firms, we suspect, are reluctant to sue because doing so could backfire in a big way. Animal abusers engender little sympathy, and taking someone to court for exposing wrongdoing could cause a consumer backlash. Companies must weigh the necessity of a lawsuit against the potential for bad publicity. That’s as it should be.

Instead, powerful industries want state government to do their dirty work for them by going after the folks who shine a light on inhumane and illegal animal abuse.

A coalition of diverse groups with disparate causes has formed to fight North Carolina’s ag-gag bill. They include the Humane Society of the United States, American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the N.C. Justice Center, American Civil Liberties Union and Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

We believe the ag-gag bill is bad public policy that seeks to punish the innocent and protect the guilty. We hope state lawmakers turn their back on it.

©The Wilson Times, Wilson, North Carolina.
Terms and Conditions