N.C. Assembly’s ‘Ag Gag’ bill aims to outlaw the messenger
In December 2011, activist group “Mercy for Animals” presented Hoke County law enforcement with video footage filmed undercover at a Butterball-affiliated turkey plant in Shannon, North Carolina.
The animal abuse depicted in the video was so violent - workers were seen kicking and stomping the birds, swinging them by their wings, and repeatedly striking their heads with metal bars – that law enforcement quickly obtained a warrant to raid the plant.
Thankfully, the investigation resulted in several convictions of animal abuse, including the first-ever felony conviction for abuse of a factory farm bird. But they may be the last such convictions. If the North Carolina Assembly passes Senate Bill 648, also known as the “Commerce Protection Act,” in the future it will be the undercover activists who are jailed - not the abusers.
The first section in SB 648 clearly spells this out by making it a crime to put false statements on a job application in order to gain entry to the employer’s facility for the purposes of undercover filming or taping. This essentially outlaws a primary tool that journalists, whether from a group of citizen activists or the team from 60 Minutes, have long relied on to inform the public of wrongdoings that often our own government hope we never discover.
Indeed, upon learning that the Shannon turkey plant was under investigation, North Carolina Department of Agriculture veterinarian Dr. Sarah Mason tipped the plant off.
Those who lobby for this sort of legislation (and there are similar bills, often referred to as “Ag Gag” laws, already enacted in a few other states) insist that factory farm animal abuse is quite rare, and thus, such videos give an unfair impression of the industry.
Yet within a year of its 2011 investigation, Mercy for Animals conducted another at different Butterball-affiliated turkey plants in North Carolina – and once again, captured film of workers abusing the birds.
Footage from both investigations can be viewed at www.butterballabuse.com. They’re but two of countless such investigations conducted over the years by numerous activist groups.
Supporters also argue that any investigation of alleged wrongdoing should be done by the officially designated authorities, not some citizen “vigilante.”
But who will be sent to investigate? Dr. Sarah Mason, the state vet who tipped off the Butterball plant that it was under investigation?
Yes, she’s still with the state’s Department of Agriculture. Although the courts convicted her of obstruction of justice, plus resisting, delaying, and obstructing a public officer, her bosses concluded otherwise and kept her on.
This brings us, of course, to the state’s role in “protecting” commerce.
It’s concerning enough that this apparently includes allowing a government employee to serve as an industry snitch. But to suggest the state be given additional authority to police what’s written on a job application and to jail citizen whistleblowers – from any industry, by the way - takes North Carolina into an astonishing new landscape.
Do we really want to go there? A place where the law protects the cruel and punishes the courageous?
If SB 648 passes, it’s where the state is headed.
Stephanie Janard is a mother and full-time copywriter. She lives in Spindale. To reach Stephanie, email firstname.lastname@example.org