Editorial: 'Ag gag' bill dangerous, irresponsible legislation governor should veto

May. 06, 2013 @ 11:56 AM

It’s called the “ag gag” bill for a reason. A bill that passed the Legislature and is on Gov. Bill Haslam’s desk would impose a dangerous and threatening assault on press freedom and the efforts of interested parties to uncover inhumane treatment of animals in this state. The governor simply must veto this bill.

SB1248 is a dangerous piece of legislation, especially for the news media. There is a real fear this could be a first step in repealing Tennessee’s Reporters Shield Law. It is the first assault on Tennessee’s Reporters Privilege Shield Law since the Tennessee Press Association helped pass it in 1973.

The bill makes it a criminal offense if anyone, including news photographers, takes pictures of livestock abuse or suspected animal abuse and does not turn over all photos and unedited video to the government within 48 hours. That will have a chilling effect on the ability of the press to investigate cases of suspected abuse.

It also hampers the efforts of other groups to do the same. In fact the House sponsor made no secret of the fact that the bill targets “radical” animal rights advocates and potential animal abuse whistleblowers. Supporters of this bill don’t like it that the abuse of Tennessee Walking Horses has been exposed through undercover efforts by animal-rights groups, even though what they found was horrific and inexcusable. And indefensible.

This is not a bill with overwhelming support. It passed in the House with 50 votes — the minimum. The House never fully debated the serious constitutional issues raised. This bill was never vetted by the House Judiciary committees, which typically would discuss such legislation. SB1248 creates a new Class C misdemeanor criminal offense, subject to large fines. That should have automatically sent it to the Judiciary Committee for discussion. The sponsors never wanted this bill to be aired and debated, because they knew it would never survive such scrutiny.

This is a bill strongly backed by Farm Bureau and agriculture interests because they want it to have a chilling effect on any efforts to expose improper and abusive treatment of animals. Only when such practices are made public can they be stopped. This bill inhibits such efforts by both the press and interested citizens. Labeling animal-rights groups as radical when they expose abuse of animals makes a good story line, but obfuscates the real issues at play here.

State Rep. Susan Lynn, in her effort on the House floor to remove journalists from the bill, pointed out ”this new law will serve to intimidate and punish those who seek to discover if a crime has been committed rather than punish those who commit crimes.” That shows that the legislation is designed to expose sources who seek to reveal and report on abuses, not designed to protect animals.

This is a dangerous, ill-conceived and shoddy piece of legislation. It should never become law. Only Gov. Haslam can stop it. The governor should veto this bill. This state is better than this legislation represents.