Supporters of contentious animal-cruelty reporting legislation took in stride the news that Tennessee’s governor is vetoing the bill. They issued statements Monday declaring their intentions to regroup and rework the mandate into a more politically palatable and constitutionally acceptable form next year.
Sponsored in the state House by Andy Holt, R-Dresden, and Somerville Republican Dolores Gresham in the Senate, the legislation would’ve required that anyone who films instances of animal abuse, for purposes of public exposure, deliver the images to law enforcement within 48 hours. It was labeled the “ag-gag bill” by detractors, who said it was merely an attempt to silence animal-rights activists by potentially criminalizing their practice of compiling surreptitious videos of livestock mistreatment.
Gov. Bill Haslam declared his veto intention because he harbored “a number of concerns,” according to a statement released by his office. The governor worries both that that the measure would be difficult to enforce and that it rolls back freedom-of-the-press protections.
Haslam has vetoed legislation only once since taking office in 2011. Last year he rejected a legislative attempt to nullify an anti-discrimination policy at a private college, Vanderbilt University, that critics said is hostile to religious freedom.
A key supporter of the animal-abuse legislation, officially dubbed the Livestock Protection Act,” was the Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation. The organization issued a press release in wake of Haslam’s announcement saying, “Although we are disappointed, we are appreciative of his recognition that well-established, long-accepted agricultural practices on farms are vulnerable to unfair attacks through misrepresentation and deception.”
“For the farm community this bill was all about protecting animals by stopping abuse quickly and ending the exploitation for sensationalism,” the statement continued. “Our farmers take the responsibility to care for animals very seriously. We will continue to be optimistic that we can care for animals and work to prevent animal cruelty.”
Legislators Holt and Gresham issued a joint statement saying they “look forward to working with law enforcement officials, district attorneys , the agriculture industry, and the animal welfare community to craft a better and more legally enforceable bill to address animal abuse during next year’s legislative session.”
Critics of the bill, in particular animal-welfare advocates, hailed the governor’s decision.
Leighann McCollum, Tennessee state director for Tennessee’s chapter of the Humane Society of the United States said, “We thank Gov. Haslam for listening to his constituents and honoring the Constitution by vetoing this recklessly irresponsible legislation that would criminalize the important work of cruelty whistleblowers. By vetoing this bill, the governor is supporting transparency in horse stables and our food system.”
The Humane Society’s national president Wayne Pacelle, said, “It’s the wrong policy to punish the person who exposes cruelty, instead of the person who perpetrates it.”
Among the opponents of the cruelty-reporting measure were conservatives in the state Legislature who, despite a tendency to regard liberal animal-rights activists with suspicion, criticized the Holt-Gresham bill as heavy-handed.
Rep. Susan Lynn of Mt. Juliet denounced the bill on the House floor as an unconstitutional encroachment on individual freedom. She issued a statement Monday endorsing Haslam’s veto reasoning. “I agree with the governor that just as some do engage in attacks on the livelihoods of farmers, this bill is not the right way to fix this problem,” said Lynn. “It would be far better for the General Assembly to take another look at this issue.”
Rep. Vance Dennis of Savannah, who last month suggested the bill at core resembled some of the “Orwellian” initiatives undertaken by totalitarian regimes of the last century, applauded the governor’s decision, saying there were “a number of substantive issues” with the legislation that needed fixing.
An attorney who serves on the House Civil Justice Committee, Dennis raised questions about the bill’s enforceability during lower-chamber debate, as well as why it did not pass through either the Civil Justice or Criminal Justice committees.
Dennis suggested the intent of the bill is salvageable, though. Next year Dennis said he anticipates “looking at the attorney general’s concerns and see if they be can be addressed in a way that he [Holt] agrees with.”
With Haslam’s veto, none of the 11 states that introduced similar legislation in 2013 passed their bills into law, according to The Humane Society.
Amelia Morrison Hipps and Mark Engler contributed to this story.