Gov. Bill Haslam has weakly signed a lot of bad legislation into law this year, and he appears poised to sign more.
He caved early, for example, on the guns-in-parking-lots bill that the NRA crowd adamantly demanded despite objections by employers. On Wednesday, Haslam signed into law the outrageously racist bill from Memphis legislators that overturns a 1998 state ban on creation of new school districts, and lets six Memphis suburban towns create their own school systems -- all to evade the Shelby County-Memphis merger of the county's mainly white school system and Memphis' mainly black city school system.
Shame on him for those two offensive and cowardly mistakes, among others. But Haslam apparently has not learned his lesson.
Our governor is now considering signing the so-called "ag-gag" bill -- the bill designed to protect agricultural industrialists, big corporate farms and slaughter-and-meat-packing factories from investigation by animal-rights advocates. The bill would make it illegal for advocates of decent treatment for animals and Humane Society supporters to withhold from police any pictures or information they gather about animal cruelty for more than 48 hours.
Sponsors of this disingenuous bill say that such a legal deadline would ensure immediate police action and prompt intervention to protect animals from being abused in slaughter houses or feed lots, or by trainers and keepers of horses and other animals.
That's pure public-relations bull. This bill was written and advanced in states across the country by the business-funded lobbying association known as the American Legislative Exchange Council. The fancy name makes it sound purposefully official, but that's deliberately deceptive. ALEC really is just a corporate bill mill and lobbying front funded by the industrial billionaires, the Koch brothers, and hundreds of big corporations, business associations and lobbying and trade groups.
It sponsors and funds conventions for state legislators and projects designed to attract, persuade and brainwash the members of state legislatures, particularly red-state legislatures whose members are so easily controlled by business interests. The ag-gag bill is just one of hundreds of bills ginned up and passed around state capitals to fix legal trends in pursuit of profits.
This bill, created by ALEC in 2002 as the "Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act," has since been adopted by a number of states. This year, it's up not just in Tennessee, but also eight other states in which the ALEC lobby has gained ground.
The ag-gag bill is faulty in every way. Though classified as a misdemeanor, it carries a fine and a jail sentence of up to 30 days. The 48-hour-limit is clearly not enough time for a meaningful investigation by potential informants in corporate farms and meatpacking factories, nor is it adequate for serious investigations and the orderly accumulation of evidence by citizen and civic groups and journalists. Rather, the 48-hour time limit for reporting animal abuse is simply a road-block to enshrine routine animal abuse in factory meatpackers and corporate farms -- a problem that has long been documented, and often curbed, due to patient whistleblowers and their files.
The gag bill also represents a violation of freedom of the press and of Tennessee's own Reporter Shield Law, which protects reporters from being forced to prematurely disclose journalistic investigations and sources. It was this sort of investigation that allowed this newspaper's reporter, Pam Sohn, to quietly obtain last year sufficient documentation to substantiate a series of reports on the widespread abuse of Tennessee Walking Horses for horse shows that culminated in Shelbyville's long-ballyhooed Walking Horse Celebration.
If Sohn had been unable to withhold information and inside-films and pictures of Walking Horses that had been sored by chemicals and metal devices to prompt their high-stepping gait, her important series would have been jeopardized or thwarted.
Gov. Haslam should have the courage, clarity and wisdom to veto a bill that would gag reporters and citizens alike, and that would ultimately encourage and facilitate abuse of animals. We urge the governor to veto the gag bill.