Rep. Mike Stewart, who voted against the so-called “ag-gag” bill, is still waiting for an Attorney General’s opinion on the constitutionality of the legislation, which arrived on Gov. Bill Haslam’s desk only just at the end of last week.
Haslam has until May 15 to veto it, sign it or let it become law automatically without his endorsement.
The bill, sponsored in the state House by Andy Holt, R-Dresden, and in the Senate by Somerville Republican Dolores Gresham, requires anyone who films or photographs animal abuse to hand the material over to law enforcement within 48 hours. The Legislation passed both chambers last month.
Even though the bill passed the House on April 17, its last hurdle in the General Assembly, the speakers of the two chambers did not sign it until May 1.
Kara Owen, deputy chief of staff for communications and policy for House Speaker Rep. Beth Harwell, said it was a logistics issue. She said it was not uncommon when there are so many bills that pass the last few days of the session for there to be a delay in having them engrossed and sent to the proper speaker’s office for his or her signature.
On the day the bill passed the House, Stewart, a Democrat, asked for a state attorney general’s opinion “to see if it violates the first amendment as it relates to freedom of the press and how it will affect the proprietary rights to their work product such as video or photographs taken as part of the undercover investigation.”
As of Tuesday morning, no opinion had been issued by Attorney General Robert Cooper’s office. However, the Nashville legislator’s assistant Delano Brent said she did receive an email from the AG’s office that stated an opinion could be issued by Friday.
Supporters contend that the measure is meant to encourage whistleblowers to come forward and stop illegal treatment of animals as quickly as possible. Critics, however, argue that it is actually an industry protection law, created to stop journalists and animal rights groups from gathering enough evidence to prove cases of continuing abuse.
Holt told TNReport on the legislative session’s final day that after discussing the measure with Haslam, he’s confident that it would become law. He also defended the intentions behind the legislation, charging that the Humane Society of the U.S. was demonizing it to raise money.
“The truest intent of this bill is to protect animals – especially from ongoing investigations like we’ve seen many times in the past from HSUS,” Holt said. “This is a radical animal activist group that raises literally hundreds of millions of dollars.”
Rep. Susan Lynn, a Republican, voted against the bill saying it violates free speech and that it criminalizes those who are seeking to stop animal abuse. On the day of the House vote, Lynn said the bill “is coercion by government of the worst kind.”
Lynn said she talked to Haslam before the last session and asked him to wait before signing it until the Attorney General opinion had come back.
The Mt. Juliet representative also noted that the bill did not go through the House Judiciary Committee after the criminal statute was added to it as an amendment in the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. She said that move was wrong.
Opponents to the bill include lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, the HSUS, as well as celebrities like Carrie Underwood, Emmylou Harris and Ellen DeGeneres. On Friday, members of the Clergy for Justice faith community delivered a letter to Haslam urging him not to sign it.
Last week, the governor said he had not made up his mind how he will proceed with the legislation. He said he sympathizes with farmers, while also understanding the arguments against it.
John Klein Wilson contributed to this story.