Monday, May 20, 2013

Tenn. governor rejects 'ag-gag' legislation, but efforts elsewhere continue

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (R) is stopping legislators from trampling on the rights of whistleblowers who document unsafe working conditions. Last week the governor announced his plan to veto House Bill 1191 and Senate Bill 1248, anti-worker legislation promoted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

ALEC and others supporters paint these Tennessee "ag-gag" bills as a protective measure for family farms exploited by animal activists who deceptively videotape livestock. However, that's far from the real purpose of the bills, which is to protect big corporations from whistleblowers. These measures, if enacted, would hinder any worker's effort to expose companies whose employees toil in hazardous environments. In a statement, Gov. Haslam said:
"Our office has spent a great deal of time considering this legislation. We’ve had a lot of input from people on all sides of the issue. After careful consideration, I am going to veto the legislation. Some vetoes are made solely on policy grounds. Other vetoes may be the result of wanting the General Assembly to reconsider the legislation for a number of reasons. My veto here is more along the lines of the latter. I have a number of concerns.
First, the Attorney General says the law is constitutionally suspect. Second, it appears to repeal parts of Tennessee’s Shield Law without saying so. If that is the case, it should say 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."
Tennessee follows in the footsteps of Indiana, where an ag-gag bill failed to make it through the legislature late last month. Elsewhere, however, efforts to enact such measures continue. Food Safety News reports,
Six states have adopted “ag-gag” laws. Iowa, Utah, and Missouri passed such legislation last year. Kansas, Montana and North Dakota did so back in 1990-91. No one can find much in the way of prosecutions under these laws, but that could be because animal welfare groups might be less active in those six states. 
This year, “ag-gag” bills have fallen short. Wyoming adjourned before there could be a vote in the second house. Indiana’s chambers could not agree after passing differing versions. The bill’s California sponsor dropped it in that state.
An opinion piece written by attorney Gordon Schnell in The Hill newspaper notes similar legislation in Pennsylvania would be wide-ranging and could hamper the rights of many.
This is not just about animal cruelty. It extends to the safety of what we eat and drink; to the protection of our environment (as many fear that fracking and other forms of energy exhumation and exploration would fall within the broad sweep of this legislation); to our most fundamental constitutional right to speak freely without rebuke. And it runs counter to the flood of federal legislation (False Claims Act, Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act, Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act) recently amended or enacted in the name of strong whistle-blower reform. Congress has clearly recognized in all of this that whistle-blowers are a much needed complement to the government's often constrained efforts to keep our world clean, safe and free of fraud. Why should there be a carve-out for the farming industry, with its rich government subsidies no less?
Proponents of the Ag-Gag legislation claim these laws are to protect farmers from vegetarian activists and eco-terrorists. They also claim that these videos can be misleading and taken out of context, making commonly accepted farming practices appear gruesome and offensive. None of this really stands up against the many factory farm abuses that have been, and will continue to be (if permitted), caught on tape. Indeed, if abusing animals and endangering our food supply really are "commonly accepted" in the industry or even approaching the norm, all the more reason to quash these laws and bring these so-called activists formally into the federal whistleblower fold.
The ultimate problem with these Ag-Gag laws, and with the anti-whistleblower sentiment that underlies them, is that they are grounded in the unsupportable notion that transparency is a bad thing. To be sure, we do not want to permit or encourage criminal trespass, defamation, invasions of privacy or fraud and deceit of any kind. But that is not what the Ag-Gag laws go after. There are other laws that guard against and punish this kind of mischief. Instead, the Ag-Gag laws go after whistleblowers plain and simple. They are singularly designed to silence this suspect class and maintain a dark shroud over an industry that is central to our health and wellbeing and ripe for exploitation and abuse.
ALEC and other corporate interest groups want to stop those with legitimate gripes from gathering evidence against companies engaging in illegal activities. Don't let them. Employees need to protect their rights in the workplace. If you live in a state where such legislation is being considered, tell your lawmakers to reject "ag-gag" bills. Transparency in the workplace is critical to our nation's future.