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NASHVILLE — Advocates for animals and the First Amendment praised Gov. Bill Haslam's veto on Monday of a bill that required anyone "intentionally" documenting livestock abuse to hand the video over to law enforcement within 48 hours or face criminal fines.
Sponsors of the so-called "ag-gag" bill, meanwhile, said they're "disappointed" but plan to come back next year with a new version addressing constitutional and other concerns raised by Haslam and Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper.
Haslam wrestled with the issue for days as thousands of people and some celebrities like country music star Carrie Underwood and Priscilla Pressley urged him to veto it. The bill was supported by the powerful Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation.
The governor said he relied in part on a Cooper legal opinion. It said the bill's provisions are "constitutionally suspect" in areas ranging from the guarantee against self-incrimination to prior restraints on publishing.
Secondly, Haslam said, it appears to repeal, without saying so, part of Tennessee's "shield law," which protects journalists from government efforts to force them to provide material.
Thirdly, Haslam said, "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."
The bill's sponsors, Sen. Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, and Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dresden, said their intent was to force animal rights activists like the Humane Society of the United States to move quickly and end instances of cruelty they cover more quickly and not exploit them.
But Humane Society officials said the legislation was a thinly veiled effort to thwart their undercover investigations. Last year, the group documented abuse that resulted in the guilty plea of Tennessee walking horse trainer Jackie McConnell in U.S. District Court in Chattanooga.
In 2011, the Humane Society secretly filmed the application of caustic substances to the legs and hooves of horses at McConnell's West Tennessee stable, located in Gresham's district. Group officials said the investigation lasted as long as it did because federal prosecutors wanted iron-clad material.
"It's the wrong policy to punish the person who exposes cruelty, instead of the person who perpetrates it," said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society.
The Tennessee Coalition for Open Government said Haslam "deserves the thanks of all open-government advocates" for vetoing the bill.
Also weighing in was the Tennessee Press Association, which represents newspapers. The group's public policy director, Frank Gibson, said, "If the bill had stood, it would have impeded the work of news photographers and reporters and others seeking to document animal cruelty."
Later in the day, Haslam told reporters he sympathizes with agricultural community members "who do feel beseiged and they do feel like in today's urban world folks don't understand what standard agriculture practice looks like."
The Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation said in a statement the group was "disappointed" but appreciated Haslam's recognition "that well-established, long-accepted agricultural practices on farms are vulnerable to unfair attacks through misrepresentation and deception."
Meanwhile, sponsors Gresham and Holt said they respected Haslam's decision "and look forward" to working with all sides "to craft a better and more legally enforceable bill to address animal abuse during next year's legislative session."
The veto was Haslam's second since assuming office in 2011.
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, ...