‘Ag Gag’ returns as ‘surreptitious commercial surveillance’? Two other bills also alarm animal welfare activists

Almost a year after Gov. Bill Haslam vetoed a so-called “Ag gag” bill, animal welfare activists say new legislative efforts pose an even greater threat to their efforts toward protecting animals from abuse.

“This is worse than ag gag,” said Leighann McCollum, state director of the Humane Society of the United States.

Sherry L. Rout, legislative director for the Southern region of the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, described one of the three pending measures as “a cleverly-crafted ag gag bill.”

The bill vetoed by Haslam last year after considerable controversy would have required anyone making a photograph or video of livestock abuse to promptly report the abuse to law enforcement officials and turn over copies of the recordings. It followed publicity of HSUS releasing a video of Tennessee walking horses being abused that was taken by a person working as an employee of the horse farm.

Critics said the “ag gag” bill was intended to prevent such operations in the future, reducing chances of prosecuting animal abuse. Backers insisted it would enhance prosecutions.

Of the three bills criticized by the animal welfare groups this year, perhaps the most akin to last year’s bill is one largely devoted to regulating the use of drones in agriculture. But section ten of the seven-page bill (SB1892) – a “sneaky” insertion, said McCollum – is a provision creating the crime of “surreptitious commercial surveillance.”

The offense occurs, according to a legislative staff summary, when an employee or another person on a business property delivering goods or services makes recording without the business’ permission and under “false pretenses.” The crime is deemed “aggravated,” with a higher penalty, comes when the “electronic or photographic images or audio recordings” thus obtained are transmitted to others.

The proposal is backed by the Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation along with a second bill (HB2258), which broadens what is covered by a 1992 law making it illegal to “disrupt” agricultural operations. It defines “disrupt” as “an action by any means or contrivance that interferes with operations of an animal facility.”

Rhedona Rose, executive vice president of the Farm Bureau, said both measures are intended to protect property rights and “put folks on notice” that those rights cannot be ignored “must because you have some sort of a cause.” She said both can also be distinguished from last year’s “ag gag bill,” which the Farm Bureau also supported.

The surreptitious surveillance proposal, Rose noted, is not limited to agriculture; rather it covers “any place of employment where you disguise who you are.”

“I don’t view it as an ag gag bill. I view it as a privacy bill,” said Sen. John Stevens, R-Huntingdon, who is Senate sponsor of the measure. House Speaker Pro Tempore Curtis Johnson, R-Clarksville, is House sponsor.

Rout and McCollum, on the other hand, characterize it as broad “anti-whistleblower” that could lead to criminal charges against a day care worker documenting child abuse or a nursing home employee reporting neglect of an elderly person.

The bill on disruption of agricultural operations is sponsored by Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dresden, and Sen. Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, who were also sponsors of last year’s “ag gag bill.”

Holt has teamed with Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, in sponsoring a third bill (HB2298) that animal welfare organizations find objectionable.

Current state law provides that fines, penalties and forfeitures obtained from prosecuting animal cruelty cases go to groups that care for abandoned or abused animals. The bill would instead send the money to the city or county government where the offense occurred.

Holt and Bell said it is inappropriate that organizations that may be initiating a criminal prosecution could then make money from a successful prosecution. Bell called the present situation “an inherent conflict of interest.”

McCollum and Rout said 40 of the state’s counties have no animal control officers or animal shelters. Local groups now receiving the funds are typically made up of volunteers relying on donations – or their own money – to feed, medically treat and shelter stray or abused animals. It is appropriate, they say, that the generally modest amounts collect go to those who are caring for the animals.

Both sponsors indicated they believe HSUS can benefit from current law. McCollum and Rout said that is not correct and only local, state-chartered societies for prevention of cruelty to animals receive the funds. Rout cited a 2013 state attorney general’s opinion that basically says the same thing.

The bill on distribution of fines was approved in committees of both the House and Senate on Wednesday. The other two measures are still awaiting their initial votes.

Holt said he is not surprised that the groups are opposing his legislation again this year.

“It doesn’t look like I’ll ever be able to please any of the radical animal rights groups and that’s OK,” he said.