published Wednesday, April 17th, 2013

Tennessee State Senate passes 'Ag Gag' bill

The Tennessee State Capitol in downtown Nashville.
The Tennessee State Capitol in downtown Nashville.
Photo by The Tennessean /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
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NASHVILLE — People who shoot video or take photographs of animal cruelty will have to submit the material to law enforcement within 48 hours or face being charged with a crime under a bill approved by the Senate on Tuesday.

The House is expected to take up the bill on the floor today after efforts by opponents to re-refer the bill to the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee failed in the Calendar and Rules Committee on a 7-12 vote.

Similar efforts are being made in other states.

Proponents say the bill is aimed at protecting animals. But critics like the Humane Society of the United States say it is really an "ag gag" bill aimed at blocking investigators from sound documentation of animal abuse, such as that which has plagued the Tennessee walking horse industry over decades.

Those arguments played out on the Senate floor in a sometimes testy debate Tuesday.

"What's the goal of reporting it? It's to stop the abuse," said the bill's sponsor, Sen. Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville.

But Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, took issue. He introduced an amendment making the bill applicable to everyone who witnesses animal abuse. Gresham successfully moved to table it.

"What's wrong with this bill is you're criminalizing the filmmaker, not the abuse," Norris said.

In 2011 the Humane Society went undercover and secretly filmed activity at a training stable in Gresham's district. The video showed cases of "soring," the use of caustic substances applied to Tennessee walking horses' legs and hooves to force them to use the high-footed gait that has made the breed famous.

Horses were beaten, as well.

The trainer, Jackie McCon-nell, later pleaded guilty to abuse charges in U.S. District Court in Chattanooga. Others also were convicted.

"This video was sat on for four months," Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, said. "They did nothing to stop the abuse ... didn't turn it over to law enforcement" and chose to release it at the "opportune time for them to benefit, I guess HSUS's fundraising."

Gresham's bill passed 22-9 with Sens. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, also voting for it. Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, did not vote.

While Gresham said her purpose is to end suffering for animals, last year she and the same House sponsor, Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dresden, had a different approach.

They tried to pass a bill making it a crime for anyone to apply for a job with the intent of causing "economic damage" to an employer by means of unauthorized recordings and releasing them to third parties, including news organizations or on the Internet.

The bill also would apply to news organizations, which has the Tennessee Press Association objecting.

Frank Gibson, director of public policy for the press association, said the bill conflicts with the state's Shield Law, which protects reporters' ability to refuse to divulge confidential information or sources obtained in news gathering. Now, reporters could face a criminal fine and news organizations could end up in fighting the fine.

"The bill is designed to stop anybody from recording animal abuse and making it available to the media," Gibson said.

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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