It was just last year that a legislative measure nicknamed "Ag Gag" revolted the conscience of a large portion of the state — a contingent large and loud enough to rouse the normally complaisant Governor Bill Haslam, who was pursuaded to make one of his rare uses of the veto.
Now, as the Flyer's Bianca Phillips first noted back in February, Ag Gag is back, in the form of HB2258, sponsored by State Representative Andy Holt, and SB2406, sponsored by State Senator Dolores Gresham. The authors, who are the same as last year's, apparently are going through the motions of complying with Haslam's suggestion, made in the course of announcing his veto, that they might come up with a "clearer" bill.
The fact is, though, that the original bill was clear enough. As Wikipedia perfectly well puts it: "Ag-gag is a term used for a variety of anti-whistleblower laws in the United States of America." The bills have turned up in state after state, in conformity with models prepared by (surprise!) the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a right-wing organization perfectly described by the London Guardian as "a dating agency for Republican state legislators and big corporations, bringing them together to frame right-wing legislative agendas in the form of 'model bills.'"
Ag gag bills are clearly aimed at suppressing evidence of animal cruelty by using criminal sanctions to inhibit anyone conducting an investigation to verify such evidence — whether in cases of "factory farming" or, as specifically targeted in Tennessee, in the horrific measures used to control and train Tennessee Walking Horses. Last year's bill mandated that anyone observing animal cruelty report it to law authorities within 48 hours or be liable for arrest and penalty. Ostensibly designed to bring swift attention to animal cruelty, the effect of such bills is nearly the opposite one, to discourage anyone from attempting to document such cruelty.
The old bill criminalized whistle-blowing as "an intent to deprive the owner [of an offending enterprise] and to disrupt such enterprise." The new bill has it this way: "an intent to deprive the owner OR to disrupt such enterprise" [our caps]. "Or" for "and." That's the change. Much clearer, right?
In his veto message, Haslam went light on the more inhumane aspects of commercialized animal cruelty so as to protect the delicate sensibilities of the state's perpetrators, who included influential sportsmen and large agri-business owners. He chose to term the bill "constitutionally suspect."
Suspect the new bill remains, and in more ways than in its constitutionality. And, as the current legislative session hurtles toward a close, the bill has a chance of sneaking by to passage. This week, it was slated for votes on the Senate Judiciary Committee and the House Criminal Justice Committee. It is a hop, skip, and jump away from floor action, and, as de facto stealth legislation, it has a chance of going all the way. The legislature should not saddle Haslam with the onus of saying no again. It should do the right thing itself — and conclusively.