On 23rd February 2023, an appeals court in North Carolina, US, found that parts of a 2015 law that was aimed at stopping investigations by animal rights activists is unconstitutional because violates free speech.
This law, the Property Protection Act, criminalised whistleblowing, by prohibiting employees from going into “nonpublic areas of an employer’s premises” for reasons unrelated to work and gathering documents or making recordings that “breach the person’s duty of loyalty to the employer.” However, every time the law was used in court to prosecute animal rights investigators exposing the cruelty of factory farming, federal courts found that the law was at least in part unconstitutional.
The North Carolina law was initially blocked by Governor Pat McCrory but the state legislature overrode that veto. In consequence, PETA and other animal rights activists and pro-whistleblower groups filed a legal suit. Jared Goodman, PETA attorney, said that the organisation “will continue to support the constitutional right of whistleblowers and investigators to serve the public and animals by exposing the horrific cruelty that occurs behind the scenes in this industry.”
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, which has now deemed the law a discriminatory intrusion on free speech, wrote, “If PETA’s actions truly violate some lawful prohibition (like trespass), PETA may be charged for that violation…What North Carolina may not do, however, is craft a law targeting PETA’s protected right to speak.”
The court said that prohibitions on taking an employer’s data, placing a hidden camera on private property and interfering with property possession could theoretically be applied in ways that do not violate the First Amendment, but the state cannot bar “protected newsgathering activities PETA wishes to conduct.”