Using his veto power for only the second time since taking office, Gov. Bill Haslam rejected the Livestock Protection Act on Monday.
In a statement, Haslam said that Attorney General Robert Cooper found the act to be “constitutionally suspect” and that he was concerned about a number of issues within the bill.
Explaining the decision to the business community in Williamson County, he couched the issue as balancing the need to address a dying understanding of animal agriculture with legal concerns of restructuring animal abuse laws.
Many in the agricultural community “are very concerned about the future of animal agriculture because they feel like as our state, country become more urban, there’s just more people who don’t understand what’s involved,” Haslam told the Williamson County Chamber of Commerce at a luncheon in Franklin. “There’s a sense in which I think that community feels besieged, to be honest with you.”
The governor announced early Monday he would veto the legislation, pointing strongly at the attorney general’s opinion illustrating First and Fifth Amendment concerns, consternation among some district attorneys that the act makes it more difficult to prosecute animal cruelty cases, as well as under the radar changes to the Tennessee Shield Law which protects journalists from revealing their sources.
“I feel like this bill does change the Shield Law, and I feel like if you’re going to change any law, you should say we’re changing that law,” Haslam told reporters after addressing the local chamber, adding he’s “not saying” the protections for journalists need to be revisited.
Although debate over the legislation was divisive at times, the bill’s sponsors Sen. Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville) and Rep. Andy Holt (R-Dresden) said in a joint statement they want to get all stakeholders involved to “craft a better and more legally enforceable bill” next year.
“There were thousands of people who weighed in on this issue and we plan to work with all interested parties in the coming months to draft a bill that will protect animals and ensure those people who abuse livestock are brought to justice,” read the joint statement.
Animal rights groups and First Amendment advocates have been vociferously lobbying the administration for weeks, arguing that instead of protecting animals, the act actually targeted whistleblowers who investigate patterns of cruelty. A number of news organizations argued that it placed a prior restraint on newsgathering.
“We appreciate that Gov. Haslam recognized the backdoor attempt to repeal the Tennessee Shield Law and stopped it — for now at least,” said Frank Gibson, a lobbyist for the Tennessee Press Association, in a statement. “If the bill had stood it would have impeded the work of news photographers and reporters and others seeking to document animal cruelty.”
Animal rights activists — who flooded the governor’s office with phone calls, emails and petitions — applauded the governor’s decision to reject the bill.
“It’s the wrong policy to punish the person who exposes cruelty, instead of the person who perpetrates it,” said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States who pushed hard for a veto of the bill.
The legislation would have imposed a $50 fine on anyone who knowingly takes photos or video of animal abuse and fails to report it within 48 hours. Advocates for the measure argued the act would allow law enforcement to quickly react to animal abuse allegations, while opponents said the bill was a reaction to a high-profile animal abuse case of West Tennessee walking horse trainer Jackie McConnell who was captured on several videos abusing horses.
Holt, who sponsored the legislation rewriting animal abuse reporting criteria, has been operating a hog farm in Dresden without a proper permit for four years. The governor said he didn’t know enough about farm permits to comment.
In the governor’s three years in office, Haslam has rejected one other bill. He vetoed the "All-Comers" bill last year, which targeted Vanderbilt's policy of forcing all campus organizations to be open to all students.