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Consider yourselves gagged, N.C. citizens

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For those businesses in North Carolina that have something to hide, hiding it became much easier this week.

Both the state House and Senate voted Wednesday to override Gov. Pat McCrory’s veto of a bill that muzzles whistleblowers who call public attention to anything from agricultural atrocities to elder abuse.

Dubbed an “ag-gag” measure by its critics, the bill gives businesses the right to sue employees who expose trade secrets or take pictures of their workplaces.

Animal rights groups say the measure is aimed at curbing the kind of undercover investigations that have exposed brutal and abusive practices in factory farms and slaughterhouses.

But House Bill 405 (click on the link to see its final version) could curb far more than that.

Nursing home employees might be discouraged from reporting possible abuse cases. Animal shelter staff could be dissuaded from reporting horrid conditions or cruelty to dogs and cats. Even journalists could be hauled into court for simply doing their jobs.

Only government agencies would be safe to shed light on criminal corporate behavior — whether it’s stomping on chickens at poultry farms or mistreating veterans in need of medical care.

Concerns that the bill reaches too far were behind Gov. Pat McCrory’s veto of the bill.

The governor said he agreed with curbing the practice of people who get hired merely so they can film undercover or gather corporate documents, but he said the bill doesn’t protect those “honest employees who uncover criminal activity.”

The House voted 79-36 to override his veto, and the Senate quickly followed suit, voting 33-15 to override.

Among those against the bill were animal rights groups, journalism organizations, the Wounded Warrior Project and the AARP, which said the law could have a chilling effect on those who might come forward with evidence of elder abuse.

“To give one relevant example, allegations surfaced last year that employees at Veterans Affairs facilities in North Carolina had been retaliated against for whistleblowing,” wrote Steven Nardizzi, chief executive of the Wounded Warrior Project. “As an organization dedicated to honoring and empowering injured service members, we are concerned that this legislation might cause wrongdoing at hospitals and institutions to go unchecked.”

The sponsors of the house bill said critics were wrongly characterizing it, WRAL reported.

“It doesn’t stop good employees from reporting illegal activities to other authorities,” said Rep. John Szoka, R-Cumberland.

That much is true. All the bill does is make it easy for large companies and their lawyers to go after those honest employees and ensure that, when they open their mouths, they’ll be stomped on too.

Republican backers of the measure said it was important to protect businesses from bad actors.

As for who’s supposed to protect us from bad-acting businesses engaged in harmful practices, well, that’s not covered in the bill.

“Not only will this ag-gag law perpetuate animal abuse, it endangers workers’ rights, consumer health and safety, and the freedom of journalists, employees, and the public at large to share information about something as fundamental as our food supply, said Nathan Runkle, president of Mercy For Animals. “This law is bad for consumers, who want more, not less, transparency in food production.”

(Photo: Inside a North Carolina poultry plant; by Bethany Hahn / Associated Press)