Gov. Bill Haslam vetoed the controversial “Ag-Gag” bill Monday, just days after the state’s attorney general called it “constitutionally suspect.”
Senate Bill 1248/House Bill 1191, sponsored by state Sen. Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, and Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dresden, would have required anyone who records — by photograph, digital image, video or similar medium — “for the purposes of documenting” abuse of livestock to turn over the unedited recordings to local law enforcement within 48 hours or face a Class C misdemeanor charge under Tennessee’s criminal code.
"Gov. Haslam has decided to issue a veto of HB 1191 – the Ag Gag bill," said state Rep. Susan Lynn, R-Mt. Juliet. "I am very pleased to see the governor do this, and I am in full agreement with this action. I spoke against this bill on the House floor and voted no due to constitutional issues with the bill. The recent attorney general opinion also expressed the several constitutional issues on which I had opined."
Animal protection groups called the bill an effort to prevent the kind of undercover documentation of animal abuse that made national headlines when the Humane Society of the United States released videos of beatings and other abusive practices against Tennessee Walking Horses at a Fayette County trainer’s stables in 2011. The trainer was later convicted in federal court. Gresham lives in Fayette County and she and Holt have argued that the bill is intended to end animal abuse quicker.
After considerable public debate on the issue, Haslam announced Monday that he would veto the bill.
“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,” said Haslam. “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.”
Haslam also said he encouraged the General Assembly to reconsider the legislation.
“Agriculture is the No. 1 industry in Tennessee,” said Haslam in a statement following his veto. “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,” said Haslam.
His veto drew quick praise from animal rights groups, the Tennessee Press Association and others concerned by the 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. 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,” said Frank Gibson, public policy director for the Tennessee Press Association. “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.”
“This legislation would have criminalized individuals, including journalists, seeking to document and expose animal cruelty, violating their First Amendment rights,” said Hedy Weinberg, executive director for American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee. “Governor Haslam’s veto of Tennessee’s ‘Ag Gag’ legislation is a victory for freedom of speech and freedom of the press in Tennessee.”
“SB 1248/HB 1191 would have had disastrous results for Tennessee’s animals by providing protections for those who would harm them,” said Sherry Rout, The American Society for the Prevention of Animal Cruelty to Animals’ state legislative director of government relations for the southern region and Tennessee president. “We thank Gov. Haslam for listening to the citizens of Tennessee and preventing this harmful and unnecessary bill from becoming law.”