Gerber: Animal bill gags the press

Gerber: Animal bill gags the press

April 21st, 2013 by Alison Gerber in Opinion Columns

Tennessee lawmakers say a bill they passed last week will protect animals from abuse.

Right. Sure. Uh-huh.

The bill, which makes it a crime for someone to photograph abuse or suspected abuse of livestock and not report it to law enforcement within two days, is actually targeted at radical animal rights groups, which have used secret videos and photos to document abuse and expose the perpetrators.

Is it a bad thing that whistleblowers expose mistreatment of animals? Not unless you're in the practice of abusing animals.

Known as an "ag-gag" bill, the law has another gag-inducing layer -- it's clearly intended to stop journalists from investigating cases of suspected abuse.

In an era of YouTube and Instagram, it's easy to use a cellphone to document abuse and instantly send it out to a worldwide audience. The farm industry doesn't like this and doesn't want photos or videos depicting questionable treatment of animals to go viral.

Why? Seems this wouldn't be a problem if they're treating animals humanely, but that's another issue.

"Ag-gag" laws have been in place in farm states such as Kansas, North Dakota and Montana for years. But this year, nine more states, including Tennessee, considered such legislation, according to USA Today.

This type of legislation is an affront to the First Amendment right of the press to gather and share information with citizens and to Tennessee's Reporter Shield Law, which protects journalists from being forced to disclose sources or confidential information gathered when reporting a story.

The shield law allows reporters to use sources who otherwise would not speak out for fear of retaliation. The new Tennessee "ag-gag" law is designed to stomp out those sources and prick holes in the umbrella of the shield law.

The new law requires that unedited photos of alleged abuse be turned over to law enforcement within 48 hours, and makes not doing so a misdemeanor crime punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a $50 fine.

But the two-day limit prevents in-depth investigation by journalists or others trying to sniff out abuse.

Under the new law, those covertly filming animal abuse would have to quickly turn the video or photos over to law enforcement, perhaps before they had gathered their most damning evidence or before journalists who were given the evidence could determine whether it was genuine.

In other words, the investigation would be over before it really began.

The new law will have a chilling effect on exposing animal abuse. Take the video released last year by the Humane Society of the United States that revealed abuse of Tennessee walking horses.

The video showed horses being struck with clubs, shocked and having their hooves treated with chemicals and mechanical devices in order to force the horses into the exaggerated stride for which the breed in known.

Horse trainer Jackie McConnell pleaded guilty to violating the federal Horse Protection Law; the board of the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration suspended him for life and kicked him out of its hall of fame.

But under the new law, the whistleblowers could've been charged with a crime because they didn't turn the video over to authorities quickly enough.

Never mind that the video undoubtedly exposed a crime; the exposers would've been labeled as criminals, too.

In an ironic note, the legislation is a very "big government" move coming from a Republican Legislature with many members who claim to support limited government. Government asking you to turn over the content of your phone or camera? That's how citizens of China expect to be treated.

Let's be clear.

The law is not about protecting farm animals. It's about protecting the state's farming and agriculture industries.

It's also an attempt to stop journalists and others from documenting abuse.

In doing so, it protects the abusers.

Alison Gerber is the managing editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Reach her at agerber@times freepress.com.