WASHINGTON, May 3, 2017 - A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit challenging a North Carolina law designed to discourage undercover investigations at animal facilities, including farms.
The plaintiffs, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Animal Legal Defense Fund, could not show that the law has in any way injured them, a requirement for demonstrating legal standing, U.S. District Judge Thomas D. Schroeder said in his opinion, released Tuesday.
The law allows an employer to sue an employee who goes into non-public areas and “captures or removes” documents from the premises or records images or sound, and then uses those materials “to breach the employee’s duty of loyalty to the employer,” said the judge, who sits in the Middle District of North Carolina.
But the lawsuit “contains not a single allegation” that the defendants – the state and the University of North Carolina – “has ever sued or threatened to sue PETA or ALDF for investigatory conduct,” the judge said.
“PETA uncovered unethical conduct at animal laboratories at UNC/Chapel Hill from 2001 to 2003,” Schroeder said. But the judge added that “it is purely speculative” whether the state or UNC will invoke the law, called the Property Protection Act, in a lawsuit against any of the eight plaintiff groups.
Those groups said they “strongly disagree with” the decision and are leaning toward appealing it.
Noting that Schroeder dismissed the case on standing, they said, “The court’s decision should not be perceived as a judgment on our argument that North Carolina’s Anti-Sunshine law is designed to intimidate whistleblowers, in violation of the First Amendment.”
Plaintiffs’ attorney David Muraskin, who is with the public interest law firm of Public Justice, said Schroeder “crafted a never-before-heard-of rule: that the government can pass a law making it so whistleblowers risk steep monetary sanctions if they expose abuse in nursing homes, daycares, agricultural facilities or laboratories, and the courts won’t even consider that law’s constitutionality unless the whistleblower first puts him or herself in harm’s way.”
Courts, he said, “should not be imposing new barriers that allow them to turn their backs and enable out-of-control legislatures to suppress undercover investigations and speech. We strongly believe the appellate court will agree.”
The plaintiffs argued that the law deters them from conducting undercover investigations and alleged it violates the First and Fourteenth amendments to the Constitution.
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