Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam should veto a bill sponsored by State Representative Andy Holt (R-Dresden). It is called the Livestock Cruelty Prevention Act. Groups normally associated with preventing animal cruelty have lined up against Holt’s bill. They claim that the legislation’s provisions are to force anyone who videotapes or witnesses animal abuse to report that to law enforcement within 48 hours. Critics say it eliminates adequate investigations of abuse and has a chilling effect on would-be whistleblowers.
Holt said the 48-hour provision is designed to stop abuse as soon as possible: that’s its only intent, said Holt.
Holt’s bill requires a person who intentionally records by photograph, digital image, video or similar medium for the purpose of documenting the offense of cruelty to animals committed against livestock, within 48 hours, or by the close of business the next business day, whichever is later, to:
(1) Report such violation to a law enforcement agency with jurisdiction over the alleged offense; and
(2) Submit any unedited photographs, digital images or video recordings to law enforcement authorities.
A violation of this amendment is a Class C misdemeanor punishable by fine only.
In the opinion of animal rights groups, it is simply will have a chilling effect on would-be whistleblowers, who often require months of evidence to build a case of animal abuse.
One Tennessee legislator said the bill is similar to the darker times in Germany when neighbors had to spy on neighbors. Editorial writers have called it Orwellian, similar to the Big Brother in the book 1984.
As a journalist, I see the bill as one a slippery slope to dismantling some of the privileges of established journalists. It essentially sidesteps the Tennessee Shield Law that has been part of the tenants of the Fourth Estate.
In my 34 years of journalism, this newspaper has used the Shield Law only on two instances: one was the Dennis Brooks Jr. murder case, and the other was only recently when an attorney wanted one of our reporter’s notes.
Holt’s bill makes it a criminal offense crime if anyone, including news photographers, takes pictures of livestock abuse or suspected abuse and does not turn over all photos and unedited video to the government within 48 hours.
The legislation will have a chilling effect on the ability of the mainstream press to investigate cases of suspected abuse.
In an opinion piece by J.R. Lind, published in the (Nashville) City Paper, “The bill runs counter to the First Amendment — the one that starts the Constitution, that document which Gresham (the Senate sponsor) and ALEC and their ilk claim to love unconditionally in its original form. The guarantee of a free press guarantees that the press is not some deputized arm of your local sheriff’s department. The press is free to act as it will, gathering information as it sees best, publishing that information on its own schedule.”
I e-mailed Representative Holt on March 13 and April 17 concerning provisions of the Shield Law and should be part of his legislation. However, he chose to ignore my requests. In a different situation, he responded to a question about the Shield Law and asked if a blogger can also be classified as a reporter; or possibly he is a reporter since he often posts on social media. Since my family owns two newspapers in his legislative district, I would have been happy to speak with him on the subject.
Here are some other aspects of Holt’s bill:
First Amendment lawyers agree it will allow government to chip away at the Shield Law.
It passed with the bare 50 votes. Governor Haslam should be willing to veto it on that ground – especially since it was never vetted by the House Judiciary committees, which would typically hear such legislation.
That is particularly disconcertingly since SB1248 creates a new Class C misdemeanor criminal offense, subject to large fines.
Fellow legislators unsuccessfully twice attempted to exempt working journalists from the bill. Law enforcement can get information from reporters about law violations now under adequate due process procedures to protect the press from government rummaging through desks, notes and reporter/photographer work product that is not ready for publication.
State Rep. Susan Lynn, in her effort on the House floor to remove journalists from the bill, pointed out “this new law will serve to intimidate and punish those who seek to discover if a crime has been committed rather than punish those who commit crimes.”
The legislation is designed to smoke out sources who seek to reveal and report on abuses. It is not designed to protect animals.
The legislation is touted as protecting animals from abuse, but Holt, the House sponsor, makes no secret of the fact that it targets “radical” animal rights advocates and potential animal abuse whistleblowers.
Reporters/photographers and the First Amendment should not be shot in the crossfire of Holt’s bill.
It is time to urge the governor to veto the legislation. There are already laws to report animal abuse without criminalizing witnesses and reporters.
The Tennessee Press Association and the Tennessee Association of Broadcasters oppose the bill.