by Tim Cushing
Techdirt. / 2017-03-21 18:46
Another "ag gag" law is in the works in Arkansas. These bills are brought under the pretense of safety — both for the person supposedly breaking them, as well as for the employees of the entity "trespassed" upon. The unspoken aim of these laws is to prevent whistleblowing, and they often spring into existence after someone has exposed horrible practices at local businesses — in most cases, the mistreatment of animals. The other consequence of most of these laws — unintended or not — is to deter employees from speaking up about questionable business practices, as there often is no exception carved out for employees of the companies protected by these laws.
Kaleigh Rogers of Vice reports another ag gag bill has passed the Arkansas state House and is on its way to a Senate vote. And once again, the bill’s wording would deter whistleblowing and make journalistic efforts a civil violation.
Arkansas senators are considering a bill that would allow private businesses to sue whistleblowers that expose abuse or wrongdoing. The bill has already passed the house, but not without receiving plenty of dissent from Republican lawmakers, free speech proponents, and animal rights groups.
The law would make it legal for businesses to sue anybody who goes onto a business’s private property and, among other acts, "records images or sound occurring within an employer’s commercial property and uses the recording in a manner that damages the employer." This include undercover investigators, but also employees: unless an employee is just doing his or her job, any recordings or information that exposes wrongdoing could be grounds for a lawsuit.
In between all the wording [PDF] that would be expected in a normal trespassing law (unauthorized access, theft, damage to property) are clauses that make exposing wrongdoing grounds for a lawsuit. This section makes the law’s deterrent to whistleblowing explicit.
Records images or sound occurring within an employer’s commercial property and uses the recording in a manner that damages the employer.
That’s combined with an earlier phrase that applies the law to employees, not just muckraking interlopers.
An act that exceeds a person’s authority to enter a nonpublic area of commercial property includes an employee who knowingly enters a nonpublic area of commercial property for a reason other than a bona fide intent of seeking or holding employment or doing business with the employer and without authorization…
Excepted from the law are all sorts of government agencies, which are apparently welcome to damage places of employment at will. In addition to damages and fees assessed as the result of a civil action, the state has the option to hit violators (which includes anyone who "directs or assists" the whistleblower/journalist) with $5,000/per day in fines.
The representatives pushing this bill are pretending it’s about safety.
Representative Aaron Pilkington (R), who voted in favor of the bill, said the language is intended to prevent people from trespassing and potentially putting themselves in danger.
"It’s just about going into places you’re not allowed to be in," Pilkington told me. "If you work in a daycare center and there are problems going on, you have every right to whistleblow on that. But if you hear there’s a daycare three towns over where something’s going on and you’re sneaking in there with a video camera, that’s not right."
That’s a really weird — and really dangerous — assertion to make. Violations should be unseen and unheard, apparently… unless they happen to occur at your place of employment. And even then, the wording of the bill contradicts the protections Pilkington alludes to. The bill specifically forbids employees from entering areas not directly-related to their job description and making any sort of recording that "damages" their employer. Whistleblowing always results in some sort of "damage," even if that damage is purely reputational and can be repaired by swift corrective action.
The only reason to pass a bill like this (rather than use existing trespassing laws to punish unauthorized entry) is to deter reporting and whistleblowing. It serves no purpose otherwise. Supporters of the bill know this, though they’ll never publicly acknowledge this fact. If it passes, it should expect an immediate constitutional challenge. The bill does too much damage to accountability and protected speech to survive a second read by the courts.