Editorial: Animal abuse bill should draw a veto
The Tennessee General Assembly slunk out of the capital last week, having again done more harm than good for the people they supposedly represent.
No more egregious example of this can be found than the despicable and unconstitutional Senate Bill 1248 / House Bill 1191. Despicable, because it aims to protect animal abusers. Unconstitutional, because it seeks to intimidate those who try to report suspected abuse.
It is a disgrace to our state that such a bill could make it out of a legislative committee, much less get a majority of votes in both houses. But that is where it stands now, and we urge Gov. Bill Haslam in the strongest terms to veto this bill.
The bill is first a repudiation of the sensibilities of any decent, law-abiding person who does not want to condone the kind of behavior that was uncovered in 2011 when whistle-blowers documented soring and maiming of Tennessee Walking Horses.
However, even if you don’t concern yourself with the treatment of animals, SB 1248 / HB1191 has implications reaching far past the farm:
• It seeks to make it a crime for anyone to take pictures of suspected animal abuse or suspected abuse if they do not turn over photos and video to the government within 48 hours. This flies in the face of the state’s shield law that has protected reporters since 1973. If it becomes law, it would be a very short hop from prohibiting photos of livestock to photographing or reporting on any powerful institution that is concealing its activities. It would be much harder to prove wrongdoing, from the farm to the boardroom or the government itself.
• As Frank Gibson, policy director for the Tennessee Press Association has noted, SB 1248 / HB 1191 was not vetted by the Senate or House Judiciary committees, although bills of this sort that seek to encode new criminal offenses typically are, because of the need for elected representatives to debate the constitutional issues involved.
It is not that there were not saner voices on the Hill who fought this bill. The bill received the bare minimum 50 votes to pass the House, and Rep. Susan Lynn of Mt. Juliet tried to exempt journalists from the bill. But this was bulldozed through by the Farm Bureau lobby, which clearly does not care about the First Amendment or the violent acts of animal abusers.
Sen. Delores Gresham and Rep. Andy Holt, both of whom have conflicts of interest regarding the livestock business, inappropriately carried this bill. Our state has few safeguards against ethical breaches by lawmakers, and their disdain for decency is on full display in this bill.
Holt has boasted that he wants to target “radical” animal rights advocates. That should give you a clearer picture of what is really going on here:
Gov. Haslam: Please listen to the people of Tennessee. We believe that it’s wrong for anyone to put themselves out of reach of the justice system, and that without a free press, there is no way to prevent that from happening.
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