Fourth Circuit Enjoins North Carolina Ag-Gag Law, Affirming Constitutionality of Undercover Investigations and Whistleblowing

For Immediate Release: February 23, 2023

Media Contact:
Lucy Sears,

Fourth Circuit Enjoins North Carolina Ag-Gag Law, Affirming Constitutionality of Undercover Investigations and Whistleblowing

Today, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit handed an important win to plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging North Carolina’s Ag-Gag law, ruling that undercover investigations and whistleblowing are considered newsgathering activities protected by the First Amendment.

A coalition of public interest groups filed a lawsuit challenging North Carolina’s “Anti-Sunshine” law – a statute that restricts these groups from conducting and publicizing undercover investigations by allowing employers and property owners to sue undercover investigators seeking to expose unethical or illegal activities in the workplace. Although similar to “Ag-Gag” laws challenged around the country, the state’s law extends beyond animal agriculture facilities and penalizes undercover investigations in settings like daycare centers and nursing homes.

Under North Carolina’s law, organizations and journalists are susceptible to lawsuits and substantial damages if they publicize evidence gathered from investigative activities such as speaking with employees, recording documents in nonpublic areas, documenting animal abuse, and performing surveillance at unsafe and unethical workplaces. Additionally, the law’s text and legislative history shows that the statute’s primary objective is to stop undercover investigations by what the legislature termed “private special-interest organizations,” specifically those focused on animal agriculture and food health and safety.

Today, the Fourth Circuit rejected the state’s numerous claims that undercover investigations fall outside of First Amendment protections, holding that each of the challenged provisions are not just subject to the First Amendment, but are viewpoint discriminatory, as they were originally passed to suppress speech critical of businesses and employer conduct.

“Today’s decision is an important win for our clients, who can continue to document and expose unsafe, unethical and inhumane working conditions,” Food Project Litigation Director David Muraskin said. “The Fourth Circuit correctly held that North Carolina cannot create a law to target our clients’ right to expose a workplace’s illegal activity. These types of investigations hold employers accountable and ensures a just and transparent food system.”

“This is an incredible victory for truth in agriculture,” said Government Accountability Project Food Integrity Campaign Director Amanda Hitt.

“This decision is a remarkable victory for transparency and democracy,” said Food & Water Watch Factory Farm Organizing Director Krissy Kasserman, who is based in North Carolina. “Advocating for a more just and sustainable food system requires shedding light on the abuses that happen behind closed factory farm doors. North Carolina’s attempt to criminalize the publishing of valuable information was nothing more than an attempt to silence critics of factory farms. Thankfully the Fourth Circuit has protected the rights of investigators, whistleblowers and journalists to share information with the public.”

“Consumers have a right to know how food is produced — and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals agrees,” said Animal Legal Defense Fund Managing Attorney Amanda Howell. “The gusto in which industrial animal agriculture continues to fight to keep witnesses out of factory farms and slaughterhouses paints a disturbing image of America’s food system — and creates increased urgency for transparency.”

“The court’s ruling recognizes PETA’s position that all Americans have a right to know that workers in the meat industry kick pigs in the face, stomp on chickens and turkeys, and smash piglets’ heads against concrete floors,” says PETA Foundation General Counsel for Animal Law Jared Goodman. “PETA 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.”

“Ag-gag laws are unconstitutional and the court’s decision affirms the critical role undercover investigations and whistleblowers play in protecting animal welfare, worker safety and public health,” said Robert Hensley, Legal Advocacy Senior Counsel for the ASPCA. “The ASPCA is proud to have been a part of this lawsuit and we applaud the court’s decision, which is a huge victory for farm animals and the fight to create a more humane, transparent food system.”

“Factory farms have a lot to hide, and they’ve actively worked to silence critics with unconstitutional ag-gag laws like in North Carolina,” said Farm Sanctuary President and Co-Founder Gene Baur. “Just, sustainable, and compassionate food systems require transparency and accountability. We are grateful for the ruling, and we look forward to ending Big Ag’s big coverup nationwide.”

“This ruling marks a turning point in the nationwide movement to overturn unconstitutional ag-gag laws,” said Farm Forward Executive Director Andrew deCoriolis. “Farm Forward believes that consumers have the right to know where their food comes from and how their animals were raised. Systematic efforts to protect the interests of agribusiness—like the implementation of ag-gag laws and meat industry humanewashing—were designed to prevent consumers’ right to a safe, humane, and transparent food system.”

Read the full opinion here. The plaintiffs group consists of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Center for Food Safety, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, Farm Sanctuary, Food & Water Watch, Government Accountability Project, Farm Forward, and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.


The Public Justice Food Project is the only legal project in the country that is focused solely on dismantling the structures that enable the consolidation of corporate power and extractive practices in our food system and supporting a vision of animal agriculture that is regenerative, humane, and owned by independent farmers. It envisions a future where our food chain results in healthy, empowered communities and sustainable livelihoods and a just animal agriculture system that is transparent and accountable to people, not profit.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is the world’s largest animal rights organization, and PETA entities have more than 9 million members and supporters globally. PETA is dedicated to protecting animals from abuse, neglect, and cruelty, and opposes speciesism, a human-supremacist worldview. PETA focuses its advocacy on the areas in which the largest numbers of animals suffer the most intensely for the longest periods of time, which includes those used in the food industry. Visit for more information.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund was founded in 1979 to protect the lives and advance the interests of animals through the legal system. To accomplish this mission, the Animal Legal Defense Fund files high-impact lawsuits to protect animals from harm; provides free legal assistance and training to prosecutors to assure that animal abusers are punished for their crimes; supports tough animal protection legislation and fights harmful legislation; and provides resources and opportunities to law students and professionals to advance the emerging field of animal law. For more information, please visit

Food & Water Watch mobilizes people to build political power to move bold and uncompromised solutions to the most pressing food, water and climate problems of our time. We work to protect people’s health, communities and democracy from the growing destructive power of the most powerful economic interests. Join us at

Founded in 1866, the ASPCA (The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) was the first animal welfare organization to be established in North America and today serves as the nation’s leading voice for vulnerable and victimized animals. As a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit corporation with more than two million supporters nationwide, the ASPCA is committed to preventing cruelty to dogs, cats, equines, and farm animals throughout the United States. The ASPCA assists animals in need through on-the-ground disaster and cruelty interventions, behavioral rehabilitation, animal placement, legal and legislative advocacy, and the advancement of the sheltering and veterinary community through research, training, and resources. For more information, visit, and follow the ASPCA on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Founded in 1986, Farm Sanctuary fights the disastrous effects of animal agriculture on animals, the environment, social justice, and public health through rescue, education, and advocacy. The organization provides lifelong care for animals rescued from abuse at Sanctuary locations in New York and California; fosters just and compassionate vegan living; and advocates for legal and policy reforms.

Farm Forward is a nonprofit that works to implement innovative strategies to promote conscientious food choices, reduce farmed animal suffering, and advance sustainable agriculture.

The Government Accountability Project (GAP) is the nation’s leading whistleblower protection organization. Through litigating whistleblower cases, publicizing concerns and developing legal reforms, Government Accountability Project’s mission is to protect the public interest by promoting government and corporate accountability. Founded in 1977, Government Accountability Project is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C.

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