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U.S. Supreme Court Declines to Hear North Carolina’s “Ag-Gag” Law Challenge by Animal Rights Groups
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The High Court turned down North Carolina’s defense of a controversial state law affecting free speech.

Introduction

In a significant development, the U.S. Supreme Court has refused to hear North Carolina’s defense of a state law designed to protect businesses, especially farms, from the consequences of hidden-camera investigations by animal rights groups. The law’s constitutionality came into question following a legal challenge led by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and other similar organizations.

  
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The Rejection of Appeals

The Supreme Court decision marks the culmination of a legal battle that pitted North Carolina’s Democratic Attorney General, Josh Stein, and a trade association representing the state’s farmers against a lower court ruling. This ruling asserted that North Carolina’s 2015 law infringes on the First Amendment’s right to free speech when enforced against “newsgathering activities.” While the lower court refrained from making a definitive judgment on the law’s validity in non-newsgathering contexts, it raised important questions about the legislation’s constitutionality.

PETA’s Motive

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PETA, a prominent animal rights organization, conducts undercover investigations to unveil the mistreatment of animals across various sectors, including laboratories, farms, slaughterhouses, the pet trade, and the clothing industry. The organization desired to conduct an undercover investigation at the University of North Carolina’s animal testing labs. However, the fear of potential monetary damages stemming from North Carolina’s contentious law, often called an “ag-gag” measure, cast a shadow of uncertainty over their endeavors.

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PETA’s Reaction

PETA celebrated the Supreme Court’s decision to decline the appeals. Jared Goodman, the PETA Foundation’s General Counsel for Animal Law, commented on the verdict, stating, “Ag-Gag laws are a desperate, last-ditch attempt by animal exploiters to smother free speech and hide appalling cruelty to animals from a public that is increasingly disinclined to tolerate it.”

The Ongoing Review

Attorney General Josh Stein’s office has indicated that they are reviewing the Supreme Court’s decision, leaving the door open for further legal action.

Legal Ramifications

North Carolina’s law allows business or property owners to act against “double-agent” workers who surreptitiously record activities or obtain confidential documents from non-public areas. These individuals may be sued for violating their “duty of loyalty to the employer” to recover monetary damages. The state contends that this law safeguards employers against various potential harms, including unauthorized use of trade secrets, campaign strategies, or patient information.

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The Fourth Circuit’s Ruling

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Richmond, Virginia, issued a pivotal ruling in February that the law infringes upon the First Amendment when enforced against “newsgathering activities.” This specifically applies to the activities pursued by PETA and the other plaintiffs. Attorney General Stein argued before the Supreme Court that “newsgatherers have no First Amendment right to break generally applicable laws,” such as laws against trespassing.

Undercover Investigations in Question

Notably, activists from both ends of the political spectrum carry out undercover investigations to expose wrongdoings. However, they are occasionally accused of selectively editing video footage to portray their subjects negatively.

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