TPA asks Gov. Haslam to veto ‘animal cruelty’ bill

On Tuesday, Frank Gibson, public policy director of the Tennessee Press Association, sent a letter to Gov,.Bill Haslam asking him to veto SB1248/HB1191. It is worth reading because it sets out the major reasons why this legislation should be rejected.

May 7, 2013

The Honorable Bill Haslam
Governor of Tennessee
State Capitol
Nashville, TN

Governor Haslam:

The Tennessee Press Association requests that you veto Senate Bill 1248/HB1191.

Comments attributed to you at a press availability last week in Smyrna make it abundantly clear that you understand the important constitutional and policy problems present in this legislation. Your comments cut through some of the emotional rhetoric this bill has engendered.
Here are the comments attributed to you: “At the end of the day, we want to come back to looking at: Is it good policy, is it constitutional, and do we think it’s something that will actually help the welfare of animals and livestock?” It is the TPA’s view and opinion of our attorneys that the answer is “No” to all three questions.

“Is it good policy?” It is not. The bill is in direct conflict with Tennessee’s Reporters Shield Law, found in T.C.A. 24-1-208(a) and on the books since 1973. This means enforcement will create legal confusion and require the expenditure of thousands of dollars in legal fees to clarify. This bill was never assigned to either Judiciary committee in the House because the criminal penalty was omitted until it came up in the House Agriculture Committee. Legal questions were raised by two subcommittee members but members of the Ag Committee had no interest in hearing them after the House sponsor declared he would take no amendments.

Representative Holt acknowledged on the House floor it was not his intention to repeal the Shield Law, yet that would be the consequence of this legislation. TPA and its member newspapers ask that you consider that in your deliberations.
It is not good policy to adopt legislation that forces citizens, including corporate citizens, to litigate whether a conflicting statute applies to them.

Is it constitutional? No, but it could take tens of thousands of dollars to get a formal, official, and binding answer to that question. Subjecting news reporters and photographers to criminal penalties for doing their job is an unconstitutional abuse of government power. As the Knoxville News Sentinel noted recently, SB1248/HB1191 clearly runs afoul of the First Amendment. It also runs contrary the press freedoms set out in Article I, Section 19, of the Tennessee Constitution’s Declaration of Rights.

Finally, will it “actually” help the welfare of animals and livestock? It will not in our opinion because in the end it will interfere with investigations of animal cruelty by the press and others before those inquiries are complete. The practical effect would be that it would tip off suspected abusers and prematurely identify investigators or whistleblowers.

It should be pointed out that authorities can get information they need from journalists under the Shield Law, when law violations are involved, but journalists should not be forced to turn over unfinished work product to the government without the due process protections the legislature set out in that statute. Doing that could lead to unconstitutional prior restraint on the press, forcing journalists to publish material before the work is done.That would be irresponsible but necessary to prevent government interference.

It is ludicrous to suggest that the news media or others would sit on evidence of animal cruelty and prolong the suffering of animals as proponents of SB1248/HB1191 claimed. The facts in the recent Tennessee Walking Horse case show that the video was turned over to the federal government within days of being taken. It was authorities who took weeks to act on the evidence presented to them.

We thank you for considering our position on this bill and ask again that you exercise your constitutional power to veto it.

Sincerely,

Frank Gibson
Public Policy Director
Tennessee Press Association

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