The veto by Tennessee Republican Gov. Bill Haslam of a bill requiring anyone taking pictures or shooting video of animal abuse to turn the evidence over to law enforcement within 48 hours may have national impact.
Haslam’s veto, coming on the heels of an opinion by his democratic Attorney General that the so-called “ag-gag” measures are “constitutionally suspect,” could be a turning point. Tennessee Attorney General Bob Cooper said SB 1248/HB 1191 possibly violates the First and Fifth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution for placing burdens on the news media and violating the right against self-incrimination.
In addition to sharing Cooper’s concerns, Haslam said the bill passed by the Tennessee Legislature appears to repeal parts of the state’s Shield Law, which exists to protest journalists from being used by law enforcement. And, Haslam said, some of the state’s district attorneys are concerned that the law actually makes it more difficult to prosecute animal abuse.
Differing views on when animal abuse should be reported was at the heart of the Tennessee debate. The most significant animal abuse cases are often the product of undercover investigations by animal activists. They say those investigations usually take several weeks, and would be harmed by premature presentations to law enforcement. Animal agriculture wants quick reporting, arguing that animal abuse should not be stretched out for the sake of making a better case.
“Ag-gag” laws would put undercover investigators out of business, according to groups like the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). After Tennessee’s “ag-gag” bill passed, campaigns broke out to persuade Haslam to both sign and veto it. Veto advocates were able to remind state voters of a recent undercover investigation conducted by HSUS in the state.
Multiple state and federal indictments followed HSUS’s investigation into Tennessee walking horse trainer Jackie McConnell’s stable in Collierville in 2011. The group’s undercover investigator collected recordings of horses being whipped, kicked and shocked in the face. McConnell and two others were charged with multiple counts of animal cruelty. Had the vetoed law been in effect, HSUS said the cruelty to horses would never come to light.
Six states have adopted “ag-gag” laws. Iowa, Utah, and Missouri passed such legislation last year. Kansas, Montana and North Dakota did so back in 1990-91. No one can find much in the way of prosecutions under these laws, but that could be because animal welfare groups might be less active in those six states.
This year, “ag-gag” bills have fallen short. Wyoming adjourned before there could be a vote in the second house. Indiana’s chambers could not agree after passing differing versions. The bill’s California sponsor dropped it in that state. And now Tennessee’s bill died in a gubernatorial veto.
State legislatures are quickly shutting down for the year. Of the 50, 20 have already adjourned sine die. Many others will do so before June. A couple that meet into the summer, such as Nebraska and Pennsylvania, could still pass another “ag-gag” this year.
But the Tennessee veto makes that less likely than it was before the Haslam veto.
Photo of Gov. Haslam courtesy of the Southern Governors Association.© Food Safety News