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N.C. lawmakers override 'ag-gag' bill veto: Will law silence whistle-blowers?

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Taylor Weidman/The Christian Science Monitor/File

(Read caption) A farm tool sits on a fencepost by the garden in Old Fort, North Carolina, May 18, 2010.

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On Wednesday, the North Carolina General Assembly voted to override GOP Gov. Pat McCrory’s veto of a bill that grants the state’s employers the right to take legal action against people who steal company secrets or covertly record alleged malpractice at farms or factories. The law will take effect in January 2016.

The bill is similar to other so-called ag-gag laws around the country that allow companies to sue people who record wrongdoing on farms and agricultural land, except this bill encompasses more than just the agricultural industry. Other states with such legislation include Idaho, Kansas, and Montana.

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Supporters of the bill, pointing to incidents in which activists surreptitiously document conditions at businesses, say it protects such businesses from bad actors and protects private property rights. Opponents say the bill criminalizes whistle-blowers and infringes on journalists’ ability to report wrongdoing. 

“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,” Governor McCrory said after vetoing the bill.

The new law will allow an employer to sue and receive monetary damages from someone who gains access to nonpublic areas of a company without authorization and sets up a camera or audio recorder. Some of the civil damages could include $5,000 penalties for each day the law is violated.

Supporters of the bill have argued that whistle-blowers, including “legitimate employees,” would still be protected under the legislation.

"This bill allows legitimate employees to report illegal activity or workplace practices," state Rep. John Szoka (R), the bill's chief sponsor, said during the House debate, the Associated Press reported.

"There's no wording in this bill to eliminate that."

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But opponents say this interpretation of the bill is misleading and that the whistle-blower protections included in the bill are too narrow.

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The bill “is unlike [ag-gag] bills across the country in that it is more far reaching and will silence whistle-blowers in any industry. It would prohibit uncovering cruelty, not just to animals on farms, but also to elders, to children at day care, to veterans, to all of the most vulnerable members of our society. In this sense, it’s much more far reaching and much more dangerous,” says Chloe Waterman, senior manager of government relations at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), one of the nongovernmental organizations that fought the measure. 

“That is very vague language [in the bill], and that includes any employee, regardless of what their intent was at the time that they apply for the job,” Ms. Waterman says.

State Rep. Mickey Michaux (D) says the bill could also compromise the media's ability to report wrongdoing.

According to those who have analyzed the bill, it’s unclear whether a journalist could be liable if a worker reports malpractice to him or her. This is one of the bill’s components that opponents say should be modified.

In response to the criticism, some of the bill’s supporters have acknowledged that aspects of the bill may need to change.

"Some tweaking of this may well be in order," state Rep. John Blust (R) told a local CBS affiliate.

Democratic lawmakers overwhelmingly supported the Republican governor’s veto, while most GOP lawmakers voted to override it. The margins in each chamber – 79 to 36 in the House and 33 to 15 in the Senate – were above the three-fifths majority required to override the veto.