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Tenn. Governor Haslam Vetoes Anti-Whistleblower Bill

Heeds criticism from all sides of bill outlawing undercover investigations at agribusiness operations and stables

  • HSUS Tenn. state director, Leighann McCollum, comforts a horse in Jackie McConnell’s stable after an HSUS investigation exposed the trainer's criminal abuse. Lance Murphey/for The HSUS

Tenn. Gov. Bill Haslam vetoed the anti-whistleblower “ag-gag” bill, SB 1248/HB 1191, after thousands of Tennesseans urged the veto and the Tennessee Attorney General wrote a report deeming the bill constitutionally suspect.

Animal protection groups, First Amendment advocates and newspaper editorial boards across Tenn. opposed the bill, which would have criminalized undercover investigations at agribusiness operations and stables. More than 300 Tenn. clergy also spoke out against the bill, as did several Tenn. celebrities, including Priscilla Presley, singers Carrie Underwood and Emmylou Harris, actresses Ginnifer Goodwin and Elaine Hendrix and Miss Tennessee USA 2013. The bill also received national criticism from talk show host Ellen DeGeneres, who invited Wayne Pacelle, the president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States, on her show to discuss the issue.

Fight ag-gag bills nationwide

Leighann McCollum, Tennessee state director for The HSUS, said, “We thank Gov. Haslam for listening to his constituents and honoring the Constitution by vetoing this recklessly irresponsible legislation that would criminalize the important work of cruelty whistleblowers. By vetoing this bill, the governor is supporting transparency in horse stables and our food system.” 

Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The HSUS, said, “It’s the wrong policy to punish the person who exposes cruelty, instead of the person who perpetrates it. We are grateful to Governor Haslam for hearing the clear voice of Tennesseans and ending this debate so emphatically.”

In his statement describing his reasons for vetoing the bill, Gov. Haslam had said, “First, the Attorney General says the law is constitutionally suspect. Second, it appears to repeal parts of Tennessee’s Shield Law without saying so….Third, there are concerns from some district attorneys that the act actually makes it more difficult to prosecute animal cruelty cases, which would be an unintended consequence.”

Learn about other attempts to silence whistleblowers

In 2011, an HSUS investigation into Tennessee walking horse trainer Jackie McConnell’s stable in Collierville, Tenn., revealed shocking cruelty to horses. The investigator recorded horses being whipped, kicked, shocked in the face, and burned with caustic chemicals. As a result of that investigation, a federal grand jury handed down a 52-count criminal indictment and a state grand jury indicted McConnell and two others for 38 counts of criminal animal cruelty.

The crimes at McConnell’s stables would have never come to light had SB 1248/HB 1191 been enacted.

How The HSUS took on Tennessee's ag-gag bill

  • The HSUS placed a full-page advertisement in The Tennessean that includes quotes from 10 Tenn. newspapers editorializing against SB 1248.
  • Pacelle sent a letter to Gov. Haslam stating that if SB 1248 is signed into law, “it may indeed backfire, and result in more public mistrust and skepticism about the workings of the Tennessee walking horse industry at a time when it is already suffering a drastic decline in popularity due to the stigma of soring.”
  • The HSUS and Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville District 13, screened a television commercial at the state capitol showing footage from the undercover investigation into the Tennessee walking horse industry and calling on the governor to veto SB 1248.
  • Of the 11 states that have introduced such ag-gag legislation in 2013, none have passed it. 

Media Contact: Anna West: 301-258-1518; awest@humanesociety.org

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