Friday, May 17, 2013

Governor Haslam Shows Courage; Rep. Andy Holt Proves Himself a Lousy Puppet

by Daniel Horwitz

Almost two centuries have gone by since Mark Twain famously quipped that it is “better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than open it and remove all doubt.”  Over the course of his recent efforts to enact HB 1191/SB 1248, however, State Rep. Andy Holt (R-Dresden) proved once again that sage advice never really goes out of style.  Fortunately, by vetoing HB 1191/SB 1248 on Monday, Governor Haslam definitively proved that he had the political wherewithal to clean up the mess that Holt and others had created, and for that Governor Haslam should be both praised and applauded. 

For anyone who didn’t follow the legislature’s shamelessly duplicitous back-and-forth regarding HB 1191/SB 1248, the following facts about the bill that should be sufficient to explain what the bill aimed to do, who stood to gain from it, and who stood to lose:

-HB 1191/SB 1248 – officially titled The “Livestock Protection Act” by the legislature, but derided as the “Ag Gag Bill” by opponents – was pushed almost singlehandedly by the Tennessee Farm Bureau, which is easily the strongest arm of Tennessee’s agribusiness lobby.  Agriculture is also the largest industry in all of Tennessee.

-The bill’s essential provision required anyone who photographed or videotaped animal abuse both (1) to report the abuse; and (2) to turn over all unedited recordings of said abuse within 48 hours.  Had HB 1191/SB 1248 been enacted, anyone who failed to do either would have been guilty of a Class C Misdemeanor. 

-Although the stated purpose of the Livestock Protection Act was to curb livestock abuse, the bill was opposed by literally every single prominent animal rights group in the United States, spanning from the Humane Society, to PETA, to the ASPCA, to Mercy for Animals, to every other animal rights group in between.  In total, the Livestock Protection Act and bills like it are opposed by no fewer than sixtyseparate civil liberties, public health, food safety, environmental, foodjustice, animal welfare, legal, workers' rights, journalism, and FirstAmendment organizations.

When a bill purporting to prevent livestock abuse is fiercely opposed by animal rights groups yet supported wholeheartedly by the livestock industry that the bill purports to regulate, it doesn’t take a genius to realize that something is seriously amiss.  According to, animal rights groups oppose “Ag-Gag” bills like HB 1191/SB 1248 for three primary reasons:

1.  Short-term mandatory reporting requirements pose a serious threat to whistleblowers by making it easier for companies to isolate and retaliate against those who document animal abuse on their property.

2.  Long-form investigations provide law enforcement with a much larger body of evidence to facilitate prosecution than a report of a single isolated incident.  Since reports of animal cruelty rarely result in successful prosecutions (according to findings issued by the Connecticut Office of Legislative Research, for example, of the 1,369 animal cruelty cases brought in that state between 2004 and 2007, only 182 resulted in convictions), comprehensive documentation of abuse appears to be crucial.  As Nina Margetson of Horse Haven of Tennessee explainedon April 21st, “Any good investigator knows it takes more than 48 hours to make a case that stands up in court.”  Notably, giving considerable credence to this objection, Governor Haslam himself cited “concerns from some district attorneysthat the act actually makes it more difficult to prosecute animal cruelty cases” as one of the primary bases for his veto.

3.  Despite being derided as “propaganda” pieces by the agribusiness lobby, detailed, long-form investigative pieces documenting animal abuse motivate the public to demand action. 

Beyond these three legitimate policy concerns, however, bills that force citizens to turn over their recordings to the government or else face criminal prosecution implicate serious constitutional concerns as well.  As noted by the ACLU in anApril 24th letter to Governor Haslam, for example, HB 1191/SB 1248 – which was basically an individual mandate on steroids – would have violated the First Amendment on at least two separate grounds by unconstitutionally restricting free speech and chilling freedom of the press.  An official opinionfrom Tennessee Attorney General Bob Cooper expressed identical doubts, and even added two further concerns.  According to General Cooper, the bill was unconstitutionally underinclusive in that it imposed liability only on those who document animal abuse (rather than requiring “the immediate report to law enforcement agencies by all persons with knowledge of livestock cruelty”), and it would also have violated the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee against self-incrimination in some instances because requiring citizens to turn over “unedited documentary evidence of suspected animal cruelty [may] reveal a possible violation of the law by the person recording that cruelty, such as trespass.”  These concerns, of course, are much more than just theoretical; without exaggeration, “everyconviction of a slaughterhouse or industrial farm worker has come about becauseof an undercover investigation from an animal protection organization,” and the devastating effects that anti-whistleblower bills can have on reporting animal cruelty have been extremely well-documented.  The First Amendment center, too, has officially stated its position that bills like HB 1191/SB 1248 “harmfree speech.”

Despite the myriad reasons presented above to oppose HB 1191/SB 1248, the Tennessee Farm Bureau was successful in ramming the bill through the state legislature, which is really no surprise given the political power of that 650,000 member organization.  Thanks in no small part to the bill’s House sponsor Andy Holt  (a previously unknown “supporter” of animal rights who publiclycalled the bill “a victory for animals,” the true intent of which “was to make sure that if there was livestock abuse that was going on, that it was reported and was reported in a timely manner”), The Livestock Protection Act ultimately made it through the legislature by just a single vote on April 17th.  Seemingly drunk off his temporary success, however, Holt quickly proved himself a lousy, misogynistic puppet of the agribusiness lobby over the course of the following month.  By uniting opposition against HB 1191/SB 1248 with a fury unseen since the proposal to enact a state income tax, Holt’s abrasive demeanor played a pivotal role in the bill’s ultimate defeat on May 13th, culminating in only the second veto of Governor Haslam’s entire administration.  Case in point:  

Almost immediately after HB 1191/SB 1248 passed the legislature, Holt wrote this email analogizing animal rights groups’ efforts to document animal abuse to the way that “human traffickers use 17-year old women,” and repeatedly equated documentation of animal abuse to rape.  His comments were immediately met with profound outrage, resulting in significant additional coverage for the bill and destroying whatever credibility Holt had previously enjoyed.  (Perhaps notably, though, Rep. Holt, was not the first Tennessee Republican to disregard GOP strategists’ pleadingsthat Republican politicians stop talking about rape after it cost the Party two senate seats in 2012; that distinction belongs exclusively to Rep.Joe Carr.) 

Then, after beloved Nashvillian and country superstar Carrie Underwood publicly expressed her own opposition to HB 1191/SB 1248, Holt endeared himself to nobody by retorting with the not-so-subtly-misogynistic, get-back-in-your-place type response that “ifCarrie Underwood will stick to singing, I'll stick to lawmaking.”  Classy as ever, Underwood responded that: “I should stick to singing?  Wow...sorry, I'm just a tax paying citizen concerned for the safety of my family.”  (Underwood, of course, is absolutely right to call out Holt for forgetting that his job is to represent Tennesseans – not to belittle them or try hammer them into submission for their political activism – and for that I take my hat off to her.) 

As a smarter politician than Holt might have expected, the backlash to Holt’s attempt to silence someone as popular as Carrie Underwood was immediate.  National news outlets covered both the spat and the bill itself, shoving a bill that was intended to be pushed through without fanfare straight into the public spotlight, and turning Underwood into a prominent animal rights activist overnight.  Thousands of people inundated Governor Haslam’s office with demands that he veto the legislation.  Hundreds of thousands of dollars poured specifically into Tennessee TV spots opposing the bill, despite similar battles being waged simultaneously in other states.  Local newspapers began delving into Holt’s own farm-related issues, uncovering his longhistory of non-compliance with state farm regulations.  And when the dust finally settled on Monday, Haslam vetoed Holt’s bill, leaving him to wipe away the egg on his face alone, wondering silently whether he’ll ever be able to count on futuredonations from the food lobby again as people scramble to distance themselves from the legislature’s newest pariah. 

For animal rights activists, Haslam’s veto this week represented an unlikely victory against one of Tennessee’s most powerful interest groups, and proved once again that when reasonable people are actually paying attention to the substantive merits of differing points of view, simply being louder, more aggressive and more obnoxious than one’s opponent is an ineffective way to win an argument.  Having been subjected to similartactics on this blog myself, I suspect that Underwood felt justly vindicated by her victory this week.  And for his own laudable decision to stand up to a strong lobbying interest and veto a bill that would have been both unconstitutional and terrible for Tennessee, Governor Haslam, too, deserves great praise.  For the courage that he exhibited in vetoing HB 1191/SB 1248 this week, I proudly applaud him.   

Daniel Horwitz is a third year law student at Vanderbilt University Law School, where he is the Vice President of Law Students for Social Justice.  He can be contacted at

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