It was with a heavy heart I learned on Thursday that the Tennessee Legislature has openly defied the First Amendment of the United States Constitution by threatening to charge representatives of news organizations and whistle-blowers with misdemeanors if they don’t submit any “photographs, digital images or video recordings” of animal abuse to law enforcement authorities within 48 hours “or by the close of the next business day.”
On Wednesday the House of Representatives approved a despicable “AgGag” bill that, in essence, makes a whistle-blower a criminal instead of a hero. HB1191 reads, “Animal Cruelty and Abuse - As introduced, requires a person who records cruelty to animals as committed against livestock to report such violation and submit any unedited photographs or video recordings to law enforcement authorities within 24 hours of the photograph's or recording’s creation. - Amends TCA Title 39 and Title 44.”
Obviously, the widely-criticized bill greatly hampers organizations like the Humane Society for the United States from gathering tapes and building evidence like that of a Tennessee Walking Horse trainer viciously and sadistically abusing animals in his barn. The viral 2011 tape of horse trainer Jackie McConnell, which first aired on the ABC News program “Nightline,” has now been seen around the world and McConell, still awaiting trial in a state that wants evidence the next day, has been found to be a felon in Federal Court.
But now this. In the very state that is the epicenter of horse abuse in America, the House, by vote of 50-43, passed HB 1191 and, unless Governor Bill Haslam vetoes the ill-advised legislation, the cowards who believe torture and soring our native horses is permissible will win a major battle in the ability to cover up their vile indiscretions to win their cheap blue ribbons
Earlier the State Senate approved the bill by a stunning 22-9 margin with Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga) voting for the bill, while Bo Watson (R-Chattanooga) did not. In the House, where 50 votes were needed to pass “the Catch-22 bill,” both House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick (R-Chattanooga) and Rep. Richard Floyd (R-Chattanooga) could have made a difference but neither did. Kevin Brooks (R-Cleveland), and David Alexander (R-Winchester which includes Marion County) also voted for the bill.
Among those against the bill were Vince Dean (R-East Ridge), JoAnne Favors (D-Chattanooga), and Eric Watson (R-Cleveland).
Jack McElroy, the editor of the Knoxville News-Sentinel, is already on record saying his newspaper will ignore the law if Governor Haslam signs it. He wrote, “The news media is not an extension of local law enforcement, and we will not function as such. That's why Tennessee has a reporter's Shield Law, so that journalists can operate independently.
“The First Amendment protects an independent press,” McElroy continued, “because the founders understood that freedom of the press is a logical extension of the basic freedom of speech and is vital to keeping government power in check.”
But Jack’s most insightful reason was this: “Some lawmakers have suggested exempting the media from an ‘Ag Gag’ law. That idea reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of what ‘the press’ is. No license or certification is needed to be part of the media in America. Freedom of the press means anyone can be ‘the press.’ In this era of websites, blogs and tweets, there are no practical barriers to self-publication, either.” (Witness this year’s Boston Marathon.)
Proponents of the bill pointed to the fact that if a health official sees or even suspects child abuse, it must be reported immediately but, sadly, the “AgGag” bills popping up across the nation are hardly the same. The New York Times revealed they are designed to hide atrocities in the food industry, where one video showed beef cattle so sick they had to be loaded by fork lift trucks, workers in Wyoming punching and kicking pigs, and baby chicks being burned and having their beaks snapped off.
Everybody knows animal rights investigations take months to complete. “This bill is designed to keep animals from suffering,” Richard Floyd said yesterday afternoon. “All we are saying is go to the authorities immediately.”
But do we make those who wait out to be criminals? Asked if he was aware that of 195 horses tested by the USDA at the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration last August, a total of 145 tested positive for illegal substances on their forelegs, Rep. Floyd said he was unaware of that. He said he was also unaware that not one arrest was made when a stunning 76 percent of the horses tested positive for abuse in the so-called “Big Lick” industry.
Last week new legislation was proposed in Congress aimed directly at those in Tennessee who regularly violate the federal Horse Protection Act. Further, every leading veterinary group and animal rights organization in the United States are rallying around the bill.
But, if Governor Haslam doesn’t use his veto, Tennessee has just made it criminal to build evidence of animal abuse. Who would have ever guessed it?