Gov. Haslam vetos 'Ag-Gag' bill

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

From AP and Staff Reports

NASHVILLE -- Gov. Bill Haslam on Monday vetoed a bill that would require images documenting animal abuse be turned over to law enforcement within 48 hours, saying his main concern is its constitutionality.

State Attorney General Bob Cooper last week said in a legal opinion that the measure would be "constitutionally suspect" because it could violate Fifth Amendment protections against self-incrimination and for placing burdens on news collection.

After vetoing the bill, Haslam released the following statement.

"Agriculture is the No. 1 industry in Tennessee. Farmers play a vital role in our state's economy, heritage and history. I understand their concerns about large scale attacks on their livelihoods. I also appreciate that the types of recordings this bill targets may be obtained at times under false pretenses, which I think is wrong," Haslam said.

"Our office has spent a great deal of time considering this legislation. We've had a lot of input from people on all sides of the issue. After careful consideration, I am going to veto the legislation. Some vetoes are made solely on policy grounds. Other vetoes may be the result of wanting the General Assembly to reconsider the legislation for a number of reasons. My veto here is more along the lines of the latter. I have a number of concerns.

"First, the Attorney General says the law is constitutionally suspect. Second, it appears to repeal parts of Tennessee's Shield Law without saying so. If that is the case, it should say so. Third, there are concerns from some district attorneys that the act actually makes it more difficult to prosecute animal cruelty cases, which would be an unintended consequence.

"For these reasons, I am vetoing HB1191/SB1248, and I respectfully encourage the General Assembly to reconsider this issue."

The Shield Law, to which Haslam referred, protects reporters from having to reveal confidential sources or information to a court or the General Assembly. It's meant to protect the news-gathering process, including the use of confidential sources, from government interference.

Marshall County's state legislators, State Rep. Billy Spivey and State Sen. Jim Tracy, had both voted in favor of the legislation and described it as a way of protecting animals by making sure that abuse is dealt with quickly.

Tracy said he understood that concerns had been raised about the bill's constitutionality, but promised he would work with its Senate sponsor, Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), to fix those issues in the next legislative session.

"I've always been against any kind of animal abuse," said Tracy. "I felt like this bill would help protect animals."

A number of groups and celebrities have spoken out against the proposal they have dubbed the "ag gag" bill. They say the bill is designed to prevent whistleblowers from collecting evidence of ongoing patterns of abuse.

The Humane Society in 2011 secretly filmed video inside a training stable showing caustic substances being applied to Tennessee walking horses' legs and hooves, and the animals being beaten to make them stand. Trainer Jackie McConnell pleaded guilty in federal court in September.

Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of HSUS, said "It's the wrong policy to punish the person who exposes cruelty, instead of the person who perpetrates it. We are grateful to Governor Haslam for hearing the clear voice of Tennesseans and ending this debate so emphatically."

The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee was among the groups that lauded Haslam's decision.

"This legislation would have criminalized individuals, including journalists, seeking to document and expose animal cruelty, violating their First Amendment rights," said ACLU executive director Hedy Weinberg, adding the veto "is a victory for freedom of speech and freedom of the press in Tennessee."

At one point during the bill's passage through the House, Rep. Susan Lynn, R-Mount Juliet, had attempted to exempt news reporters, photographers and bloggers from the bill's requirements. That amendment was not successful.

The Tennessee Press Association was one of the organizations which spoke out against approval of this bill.

"Gov. Bill Haslam did the right thing in vetoing this badly misguided legislation, and his suggestion the legislature reconsider the bill showed he vetoed it for all the right reasons," said TPA Public Policy Director Frank Gibson. "The veto shows that the process and our system of government work well when there is transparency and when someone in authority listens and considers all sides of an issue.

"We appreciate that Gov. Haslam recognized the backdoor attempt to repeal the Tennessee Shield Law and stopped it -- for now at least. If the bill had stood, it would have impeded the work of news photographers and reporters and others seeking to document animal cruelty."

The veto is Haslam's second since he took office in 2011.