published Thursday, May 9th, 2013

Tennessee attorney general calls ‘ag gag’ bill ‘constitutionally suspect’

NASHVILLE — Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper says a so-called “ag gag” bill passed by state lawmakers is “constitutionally suspect” under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.

The 10-page legal opinion, released today, comes as Gov. Bill Haslam continues to wrestle over whether he will sign the bill, veto it or allow it to become law without his signature.

Haslam has said his decision will be based in part on legal advice.

The bill requires anyone who intentionally makes a picture or video showing livestock abuse provide copies to law enforcement officers within 48 hours. Failure to do so would be misdemeanor crime, subject to a $500 fine if found guilty.

In the opinion, Cooper said House Bill 1191 is constitutionally suspect on three grounds.

The first is it is “underinclusive” or discriminatory in who is covered. Secondly, the requirement to provide recordings of livestock cruelty “could be an impermissible prior restraint.” Finally, the opinion says, the reporting requirement “could be found to constitute an unconstitutional burden on news gathering.

“In addition, HB1191 could be held to violate a person’s Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination,” the opinion says.

The Humane Society of the United States contends the bill is a thinly veiled effort to block undercover investigations the group has conducted into livestock cruelty, including a 2012 long-term investigation the group conducted of the Tennessee walking horse industry. That resulted in the conviction of a West Tennessee trainer caught on video beating and using chemicals to burn horses legs to produce a high gait.

Proponents, however, argue the would-be law is aimed at providing relief to animals suffering torture.

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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