by Max Brantley
The Arkansas legislature is dangerously close to passing an anti-whistleblower “ag-gag” bill.UPDATE: It appears an amendment was added in the Senate today to say the bill doesn't apply to a healthcare or medical services provider, perhaps to eliminate using nursing home abuse against the sponsors of the bill. You still have daycare, restaurants and many other operations where whistleblowers would be at peril. If the bill passes as amended, it will have to go back to the House.
HB 1665 would allow every business owner in the state to sue employees who take pictures, videos, or otherwise blow the whistle on illegal or unethical activity in the workplace.
Although ag-gag bills are primarily intended to silence animal protection groups, the Arkansas bill is written so broadly it could be used to sue basically anyone. Workers who expose abuse at daycare facilities and nursing homes could be bankrupted. Restaurant employees who speak out about tainted food sales could end up on the hook for the restaurant’s financial losses. There is any number of ways that this absurd and unconscionable proposal could be abused.
Ag-gag bills were introduced in states across the country beginning in 2011 to prevent undercover investigations by groups like Mercy For Animals, which repeatedly documented illegal and abusive animal handling practices, food safety concerns, environmental infractions, and serious labor law violations. Instead of improving their practices, the agricultural industry engaged in a large-scale effort to shield factory farms and slaughterhouses from public scrutiny in the first place.
Their attempts have been largely unsuccessful. Ag-gag bills are widely unpopular with consumers, who want greater transparency in food production, not less, as well as with national publications like the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, which have editorialized against these bills as an attack on press freedoms. Ultimately, only five ag-gag bills have passed out of dozens of attempts, and one of these five was recently overturned on First and Fourteenth amendment grounds, shedding doubt on the constitutionality of ag-gag laws generally.
That is what makes the Arkansas bill so misplaced. This new bill is more dangerous than ever, since it targets everyone, not just animal protection groups.
People have a right to be warned, and to warn each other, of impending harms. It’s a core reason for our fundamental rights to free speech and a free press. Whistleblowing employees have long played a vital role in exposing unsafe working conditions, animal abuse, and other illegal activity. Lawmakers should be working to address these problems, not preventing the American public from finding out about them in the first place.