For all the attention on North Carolina's ag-gag law, the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals saw the challengers' case as straightforward.
They have standing to sue, the appeals court said in People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals v. Stein. Basically, the plaintiffs alleged sufficient injury to proceed in their pre-emptive strike against the statute.
PETA and others had sued before the state enforced the law, which was designed to protect businesses from private undercover investigations. In an unpublished decision, the Fourth Circuit said it's enough that the plaintiffs feared the potential penalties.
The North Carolina Property Protection Act prohibits workers from entering an employer's private property without authorization to photograph or record on the premises. The law protects chicken farmers, among other business people, from surreptitious reporting about their business.
PETA and other animal-protection groups have infiltrated such businesses by using employees to uncover acts of animal cruelty. But when they sued to invalidate the North Carolina law, a trial judge said they had no standing because they had only a potential injury.
The Fourth Circuit considered the chilling effect of the law on the First Amendment. The panel said the plaintiffs could proceed because they showed a credible threat of injury.
"Plaintiffs alleged injury for standing purposes is that they have refrained from carrying out their planned investigations based on their reasonable and well-founded fear that they will be subjected to significant exemplary damages under the Act if they move forward at all," the appeals panel said.
Dozens of news organizations and legal scholars filed amicus briefs on behalf of the plaintiffs, which included the Animal Legal Defense Fund and six other special interest groups.
According to reports, North Carolina is one among a half-dozen states that have similar statutes. The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and other courts have struck down such ag gag laws.