Governor Bill Haslam on Monday vetoed the controversial "Ag-Gag" bill that would require those filming or photographing alleged animal abuse to turn over the evidence to law enforcement within 48 hours or face misdemeanor charges.
He did so after a volatile campaign led by the Humane Society of the United States and after State Attorney General Robert Cooper said the bill was "constitutionally suspect.
Governor Haslam said, "“Agriculture is the No. 1 industry in Tennessee. Farmers play a vital role in our state’s economy, heritage and history. I understand their concerns about large scale attacks on their livelihoods. I also appreciate that the types of recordings this bill targets may be obtained at times under false pretenses, which I think is wrong.
“Our office has spent a great deal of time considering this legislation. We’ve had a lot of input from people on all sides of the issue. After careful consideration, I am going to veto the legislation. Some vetoes are made solely on policy grounds. Other vetoes may be the result of wanting the General Assembly to reconsider the legislation for a number of reasons. My veto here is more along the lines of the latter. I have a number of concerns.
“First, the Attorney General says the law is constitutionally suspect. Second, it appears to repeal parts of Tennessee’s Shield Law without saying so. If that is the case, it should say so. Third, there are concerns from some district attorneys that the act actually makes it more difficult to prosecute animal cruelty cases, which would be an unintended consequence.
“For these reasons, I am vetoing HB1191/SB1248, and I respectfully encourage the General Assembly to reconsider this issue.”
Bill sponsors Rep. Andy Holt and Senator Dolores Gresham said regarding House Bill 1191/Senate Bill 1248:
"We respect Governor Haslam’s decision and 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.
"There were thousands of people who weighed in on this issue and we plan to work with all interested parties in the coming months to draft a bill that will protect animals and ensure those people who abuse livestock are brought to justice.
"We certainly appreciate the input from Governor Haslam and Attorney General Cooper regarding this legislation and invite all stakeholders to share their opinion on this important update to our state’s animal abuse laws."
Leighann McCollum, Tennessee state director for the HSUS, said, “We thank Governor 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.”
Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the HSUS, added: “It’s the wrong policy to punish the person who exposes cruelty, instead of the person who perpetrates it. We are grateful to Governor Haslam for hearing the clear voice of Tennesseans and ending this debate so emphatically.”
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) called the veto "a victory for animal welfare and consumer safety." The group said, "If signed into law, this dangerous anti-whistleblower/ag-gag legislation would have suppressed whistleblowers and protected animal abusers instead of working to prevent such mistreatment."
“SB 1248/HB 1191 would have had disastrous results for Tennessee’s animals by providing protections for those who would harm them,” said Sherry Rout, state legislative director of ASPCA Government Relations for the Southern region, and Tennessee resident. “We thank Governor Haslam for listening to the citizens of Tennessee and preventing this harmful and unnecessary bill from becoming law.”
Suzanne McMillan, director of the ASPCA’s Farm Animal Welfare Campaign, said, "This legislation would have suppressed whistleblower investigations on farms, which have been extremely successful in documenting the inhumane treatment of animals, uncovering crucial health and welfare information, and spurring many groundbreaking reforms. If this bill had become law, these types of investigations—such as the one last year that revealed the gruesome practice of beating and soring Tennessee Walking Horses - would have remained hidden from the public. This bill would have placed a veil over animal welfare and food safety in the state and suppressed whistleblowers from exposing potential harms. We hope the action taken today by Governor Haslam will encourage industry to directs its energy toward achieving accountability for those who are inflicting abuse on animals and putting consumers at risk, rather than coming up with creative ways to cover up these problems.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee applauded the action, which the group said "would have unconstitutionally chilled the free speech of citizens and journalists seeking to expose animal cruelty."
The ACLU collected more than 34,000 petition signatures online urging the governor to veto the legislation.
Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, said, “This legislation would have criminalized individuals, including journalists, seeking to document and expose animal cruelty, violating their First Amendment rights.
“Governor Haslam’s veto of Tennessee’s "Ag-Gag" legislation is a victory for freedom of speech and freedom of the press in Tennessee.”