Wilson County’s state Sen. Mae Beavers spoke Thursday in favor of a controversial bill critics say would stifle undercover investigations into animal abuse.
House Bill 1191/Senate Bill 1248, dubbed the “Ag-Gag” bill, amends Tennessee's cruelty to animals statutes to require a person who records, "by photograph, digital image, video or similar medium" for the purpose of documenting cruelty to livestock, to report the violation to the local law enforcement agency and submit any unedited recordings to authorities within 48 hours.
Beavers said the bill would serve two goals: prevent people from using manipulated or spliced images against livestock owners, and require people to quickly report animal cruelty.
She compared the bill to existing laws regarding child abuse.
“If a doctor sees evidence of child abuse, he’s to report it immediately,” said Beavers. “[Under this bill], if you saw what was clearly animal abuse, you would have to report it in a timely manner.”
State Rep. Susan Lynn said she is opposed to the bill.
"This bill really split us on the floor," she said. "I oppose it because it violates the Constitution and it violates people's rights. Animal activists also oppose it."
The Humane Society of the United States President and CEO Wayne Pacelle said his group is initially spending $100,000 on TV ads opposing the bill. The ads are not running in Memphis, Chattanooga or elsewhere yet, but the governor's office said Monday it had received about 2,000 emails and phone calls on the issue. The governor said April 19 that he's studying the bill.
Pacelle said the bill is part of a national movement to make it a crime to do the kind of undercover work that HSUS did in Fayette County in 2011 when it documented abuse of Tennessee Walking Horses at a trainer's stable.
Pacelle also disputed statements made by the House sponsor, Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dresden, that HSUS "held" its undercover recordings of the abuse for four months before reporting to law enforcement.
Pacelle said HSUS gave recordings to federal prosecutors within two weeks after its undercover operative got a job at the trainer's stable and, at the prosecutors' request, the videos were not publicly released for another 13 months. By that time, trainer Jackie McConnell was already under indictment by a federal grand jury in Chattanooga.
Lynn agreed the Tennessee Walking House scandal was what prompted the bill.
"There were so many false statements from the House author in particular," Pacelle said. "The investigation began in April 2011, and we began to turn information over to the United States attorney for the purpose of enforcing the Horse Protection Act, a federal statute that dates to 1970, within two weeks."
The bill won a 22-9 Senate vote April 16 and 50-43 in the House the next day. It takes 17 votes to approve a bill in the Senate and 50 in the House, which means it passed with the minimum required there.
At a news conference Monday, Rep. Gloria Johnson, R-Knoxville, said, "This bill is anti-whistleblower and gives the industry the power to avoid transparency. In the House, we only lacked one vote to stop this bill. Twenty-three Republicans and 20 Democrats voted against this bill. The coalition against this bill is definitely bipartisan."
Whit Adamson, executive director of the Tennessee Association of Broadcasters, and Kent Flanagan, director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said the bill would hinder journalists and others from documenting abuse.
Lynn said the vast majority of farmers treat their animals well, and many animal activists are opposed to anything involved in using animals for meet. But she didn't mince words concerning her opposition to the Ag Gag bill.
"This legislation violates freedom of the press, freedom of speech and involves the unreasonable taking of property by the government," she said.
Beavers, however, turned the tables on the bill’s detractors.
“So what do you want to do, put [off reporting abuse] and let people abuse the animals?” said Beavers.
– The Commercial Appeal in Memphis contributed to this report via MCT.