Supreme Court silent on free speech in state ag-gag laws again

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(The Center Square) – Justices at the U.S. Supreme Court consistently stay out of free speech cases linked to state ag-gag laws. And a victory by PETA involving North Carolina is another example.

A 2-1 ruling at the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals will not be challenged in the nation’s highest court. The Supreme Court, in a Monday release of orders from their Friday conference, had considered it when meeting three consecutive times.

This time they denied the review and did not issue comment.

The cases are North Carolina Farm Bureau v. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and Stein v. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. The appellate court sided with PETA for undercover work performed to conduct newsgathering activities.

A 2015 law, the impetus of which is a 1990s dispute between grocer Food Lion and ABC News, is in place to prevent secretly recording videos or taking documents at farms and other workplaces. A Republican trifecta was in place when the General Assembly and former Gov. Pat McCrory implemented the legislation.

The North Carolina Farm Bureau Federation said the 4th Circuit’s ruling left private property owners “without any civil remedy against invasions by individuals so long as the invaders claim they were attempting to gather news.”

Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein’s office sought clarity, saying different circuit courts have varying rulings “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.”

Litigators in Monday’s victory championed people having a right to know about unethical conduct.

Agriculture has always been the state’s No. 1 industry, with current estimates of a $103.2 billion contribution to the state’s economy. The state is ninth nationally as an agriculture producer, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Three key industries where the 2015 law and PETA could potentially, or have, collided are:

• Chickens and broilers: Farms have about 976 million head; about 100,000 jobs are within the industry; and production is second only to Georgia.

• Turkeys: Farms have about 28 million head; the industry value is $1.1 billion; and 16% of all production in the U.S. is in North Carolina, second only to Minnesota.

• Hogs: Farms inventory is about 8.3 million; state economic impact is estimated at more than $10 billion; only Iowa and Minnesota have more production. Smithfield Foods’ plant at Tar Heel in Bladen County is the world’s largest pork production facility, employing about 5,000 and operating over 1 million square feet. Production there is 8 million pounds daily.

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