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Groups urge Haslam to veto 'ag gag' bill

3:31 PM, Apr 22, 2013   |    comments
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By Chas Sisk | The Tennessean

The head of the Humane Society of the United States and others urged Gov. Bill Haslam to veto legislation that requires witnesses to turn over evidence of animal abuse, saying it will muzzle whistleblowers who document wrongdoing.

"This is a preemptive strike against animal welfare groups and against the press who uncover and expose illegal animal cruelty," said Wayne Pacelle, the organization's president and chief executive. "This is an attempt to cover up abuses."

Pacelle said the Humane Society of the United States has launched an ad campaign in Nashville and Knoxville urging Haslam to veto the bill. The group initially has committed $100,000 to the effort and plans to air the ads until the governor makes a decision on the bill.

State lawmakers approved Senate Bill 1248 last week following a heated debate that split rural and urban lawmakers. The measure requires anyone who photographs or videotapes abuse of an animal to give a copy to police within 48 hours. Violations are punishable by a $50 fine.

Opponents of the bill argued that it's meant to stifle reporting on animal abuse, rather than the abuse itself. Proponents said it will force those who witness animal abuse to turn over their evidence immediately, allowing law enforcement to step in and investigate.

Haslam has vetoed only one bill since becoming governor in 2011, an attempt by the state legislature to force Vanderbilt University to change its nondiscrimination policy for campus organizations. Haslam told reporters last week that he has not made up his mind about the so-called "ag gag" bill.

"It's not one that quite frankly was really high on my radar screen, so I hadn't paid a lot of attention to it till this week," Haslam said. "We've obviously got a lot of calls and emails on it. ... I'll be studying it."

Lawmakers on both sides invoked an investigation by the Humane Society of the United States specifically during the debate. The group's 2011 recording of a Tennessee Walking Horse being sored repeatedly led to criminal charges against a prominent trainers and greater scrutiny of the show horse industry generally.

But critics say the organization's investigators held onto footage rather than turn it over immediately to law enforcement agents, forcing the horse to endure the abuse.

"As an animal lover, I don't know how someone could know that an animal is being abused and not tell somebody," state Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, said Monday.

Johnson and other legislators backed -- but majorities in the House and Senate both rejected -- amendments to the bill that would have required anyone who witnesses animal abuse to report it, whether they have recorded the event or not. Similar laws already on the books require child abuse suspicions to be reported immediately.

Pacelle denied that his organization sat on evidence. He said investigators took proof of the abuse to the United States attorney's office in Chattanooga just two weeks after its investigation began.

Contact Chas Sisk at 615-259-8283 or Ask him a question on Twitter @chassisk.

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