Press Access

Supreme Court Rejects North Carolina’s Appeal in Ag-Gag Law Dispute

supreme court building
In this April 6, 2023, file photo, the U.S. Supreme Court building is seen in Washington. (Reuters/Elizabeth Frantz)

By The Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court on Monday rejected North Carolina’s appeal in a dispute with animal rights groups over a law aimed at preventing undercover employees at farms and other workplaces from taking documents or recording video.

The justices left in place a legal victory for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals in its challenge to the state law, which was enacted in 2015. PETA has said it had wanted to conduct an undercover investigation at testing laboratories at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill but feared prosecution under the “Property Protection Act.”

In a 2-1 decision, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in February that the law could not be enforced against PETA — and likely others in similar situations — when its undercover work is being performed to conduct newsgathering activities.

“People have a right to know about illegal and unethical conduct. Exposing unsafe or inhumane practices and working conditions is essential to holding powerful bad actors accountable for the harm they cause,” David Muraskin, a lawyer with FarmSTAND — representing PETA and other groups that challenged the law, said while praising Monday’s decision.

The law is similar to so-called state ag-gag laws — aimed at gagging undercover activists who record footage of the animal agriculture industry — that have been struck down by several courts around the country over free speech concerns. The Supreme Court has so far refused to weigh in.

The majority opinion at the 4th Circuit had narrowed a 2020 ruling by a trial court judge who had struck down four provisions in the law related to the potentially secretive activities.

State lawyers for Attorney General Josh Stein, a defendant in the case along with UNC-Chapel Hill’s chancellor, had asked the Supreme Court to take up the matter. So did the North Carolina Farm Bureau Federation, which also defended the law in court.

Stein’s office had told the justices there were conflicting decisions among circuits “about whether audio-visual recording always constitutes protected speech or whether recording may be unprotected when it takes place on nonpublic property without the property owner’s consent.”

Muraskin said Monday that reversing that decision would have had a chilling effect on whistleblowers and undercover investigations of many kinds, including those of sexual harassment.

N.C. Farm Bureau attorney Jake Parker called Monday’s decision not to hear the case “disappointing and troubling” and expressed hope that the North Carolina legislature would “step up again and protect our fundamental rights to privacy and property.”

“Meanwhile, farmers and other business owners should consider themselves activist targets and take caution when hiring new employees,” Parker said.

A spokesperson for Stein, the state’s top law enforcement officer, said his office was reviewing Monday’s decision and its implications.