Legislators out to stop what they see as “vigilante” attacks on the livestock industry are pushing for enactment of a bill that critics see as an attack on constitutional freedom of speech.
The bill (SB1248) would require anyone observing abuse of livestock to promptly turn over all “unedited photographs, digital images or video” related to the abuse to law enforcement authorities. Under the current Senate version, this would have to occur within 48 hours of when the recording was made or, if the recording was made on a weekend, on the next weekday.
Violators would be guilty of a “class C” misdemeanor, penalized by a maximum fine of $500.
“This is a Catch-22 bill,” said Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, when the proposal (SB1248) came up on the Senate floor last week, referring to the Joseph Heller novel on a paradoxical situation.
At Norris’ request for time to “parse this out,” Senate sponsor Delores Gresham, R-Somerville, postponed a Senate floor vote until Tuesday, In the House, the bill has one more committee hurdle — the House Calendar Committee, which typically gives rubber-stamp approval to a House floor vote and sets the time for that vote.
In this case, however, Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, plans to oppose the measure in the Calendar Committee.
“I am just shocked at a blatant attempt to rewrite the First Amendment,” said Lundberg in an interview. Sponsor of the bill — Gresham, R-Somerville and Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dresden — say the measure is a logical and reasonable approach toward both protecting abused animals and combating what Holt characterized as “radical animal activist groups.”
“I think this is something we need to be doing not only to protect our animal industry against these animal activists who have caused great economic harm in some instances, but to protect the animals themselves,” said Holt during a committee hearing.
Investigation of animal abuse, Gresham said on the Senate flood, “needs to be done by law enforcement, not by vigilantes.”
Holt and Gresham argue that animal abuse should be reported immediately to authorities to protect the animals from further abuse rather than letting the abuse continue — sometimes for “months and months,” Holt said — before a video is made public by the instigating organization.
The most prominent Tennessee example is an undercover video released last year by the Humane Society of the United States showing Tennessee Walking Horses being subjected to chemical “soring” of their hooves to enhance their high-stepping performance. The video also showed trainers beating horses and led to successful prosecution of the culprits.
Nationally, the American Legislative Exchange Council has pushed similar legislation, though ALEC’s “model bill” appears to differ from the pending Tennessee proposal. As described by the New York Times, the ALEC-proposed “Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act” would prohibit filming or taking pictures of livestock farms to “defame the facility or its owner.” Those who violated the model ALEC act would be placed on a “terrorist registry.” Such legislation is depicted as “ag gag” legislation by opponents.
ALEC brings together business-oriented state legislators and businesses from around the nation for periodic meetings to discuss promoting legislation to advance free enterprise, according to its website. It is mostly funded by member corporations and has been widely criticized by national groups such as ALEC Exposed, which contends ALEC is “a corporate collaboration reshaping our democracy, state by state,” according to its website.
In Tennessee, ALEC has not been mentioned in any of the legislative debates as the measure approaches decisive votes this week. Instead, criticism seems more of Norris’ “Catch 22” depiction.
On one hand, support of the bill, as proponents describe it, is support for stopping cases of animal abuse as soon as they are noticed — rather like current state law requiring anyone aware of child abuse to report it to authorities.
“The object of the bill is to stop abuse — just stop it!,” said Gresham. “This is not an anti-whistleblower bill … We’re saying, whistle-blower, blow your whistle. Just take what you have and take it to law enforcement … so the abuse will be stopped.”
On the other hand, opposing the bill, as opponents describe it, can be seen as blocking efforts to combat animal abuse by requiring immediate surrender of evidence to a law enforcement agency — perhaps a local sheriff or police officer who is on friendly terms with the offender.
Lundberg said the bill presents a different proposition..
“This is the first time I’ve ever seen a bill requiring media to report what they’ve see to the police,” said Lundberg.
“There’s so much talk in this legislature about the Second Amendment. But the First Amendment is also incredibly strong and we can’t afford to ignore that one just because it’s not on our radar screens.”
An amendment to exempt news media from the bill was proposed at one point in the House committee debate, but Holt said he had decided not to accept it.
Lundberg said he understood that the Tennessee Farm Bureau, a potent lobbying force in the Legislature, was supporting the bill.
Redonna Rose, lobbyist for the Farm Bureau, said that the measure was not initially pushed by the Farm Bureau but “since it’s there,” the organization supports it considering farmers’ general concern with animal rights activism that unfairly attacks livestock producers whose “whole world circulates around taking good care of animals.”
She said the bureau’s support is specifically for the Senate version, which specifies that violatons of the proposed law would apply only to those who “intentionally” recorded animal abuse.
The amendment could apparently ease concerns such as those voiced by Rep. Gloria Johson, D-Knoxville, who said the bill’s penalty provision could apply to a child photographing a farmer parent in circumstances that would not necessarily be considered animal abuse.