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Governor vetoes 'ag gag' bill

1:27 PM, May 13, 2013   |    comments
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By Chas Sisk | The Tennessean

Gov. Bill Haslam announced Monday that he will veto a bill that would have compelled investigators into animal cruelty to turn over their footage within 48 hours.

The Tennessee Republican said he is vetoing the so-called "ag gag" bill because it appears to be constitutionally suspect. He urged the state legislature to reconsider the measure.

"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," Haslam said in a statement. "After careful consideration, I am going to veto the legislation. ... I have a number of concerns."

Haslam announced his decision following an intense campaign urging the governor to veto the measure. Haslam's office received more than 5,000 phone calls and 16,000 emails on the bill -- most of them expressing their opposition - and an online petition calling for a veto gathered more than 34,000 signatures.

Talk show host Ellen DeGeneres invited Wayne Pacelle, the Humane Society of the United States' president and chief executive, onto her show to drum up support for a veto. Other celebrities, including Carrie Underwood, Emmylou Harris and Ginnifer Goodwin, also weighed in.

But Haslam referred to another opinion -- from state Attorney General Robert Cooper -- as the deciding factor behind his decision.

In an opinion released Thursday, Attorney General Robert Cooper's office pointed out several flaws with the bill.

State attorneys said the bill is unclear about which law enforcement authority footage must be given to, they said, and the measure presents copyright issues for anyone who obtains the footage through an open-records request. The bill also might violate First Amendment protections on the press and Fifth Amendment provisions against self-incrimination.

Cooper's office contrasted the bill with laws that require witnesses to report abuse of children or adults. Those laws spell out who must be informed, and they impose the same requirement regardless of whether or not the witness plans to publish what they have seen. They also grant witnesses confidentiality and immunity for reporting cruelty.

State Sen. Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, and state Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dresden, filed the bill, which drew support from an array of Republicans and Democrats representing rural areas. Many supporters expressed concern that hidden cameras are being used to cast farmers in a negative light to bolster animal-welfare groups' fundraising efforts and to undermine public support for agriculture.

But the measure came after the Humane Society used hidden cameras to document a pattern of abuse by Jackie McConnell, a Hall of Fame trainer of Tennessee Walking Horses, leading to his criminal prosecution. Proponents said the Humane Society had let the cruelty go on to aid its investigation, but the Humane Society said it informed law enforcement of the abuses quickly and was asked to continue its work.

McConnell's abuses took place in Fayette County, which is represented by Gresham, the bill's Senate sponsor. He pleaded guilty last fall to violating the federal Horse Protection Act, receiving fines of $75,000 and three years of probation.

Haslam condemned hidden-camera investigations at the same time he announced his veto.

"Agriculture is the No. 1 industry in Tennessee," he said. "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,"

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