By BRAD GASKINS / News Editor
State Rep. Andy Holt made state and some national headlines recently after he told a Nashville TV station that country music star Carrie Underwood should stick to singing and leave the lawmaking to him.
The back and forth, played out through social media and press interviews, comes as Gov. Bill Haslam considers whether to veto the Holt-sponsored Livestock Cruelty Prevention Act.
The legislation, known by many as the ‘Ag Gag’ bill, would require anyone recording images of animal abuse to turn photos or unedited footage of animal abuse over to law enforcement within 48 hours.
“Shame on TN lawmakers for passing the Ag Gag bill. If Gov. Bill Haslam signs this, he needs to expect me at his front door. Who’s with me?” Underwood tweeted April 18.
Holt, a Republican from Dresden, responded by telling Nashville TV station WSMV, “I would say that if Carrie Underwood will stick to singing, I’ll stick to lawmaking.”
Underwood countered April 19, tweeting to her 1.5 million followers, “I should stick to singing? Wow … sorry, I’m just a tax paying citizen concerned for the safety of my family.”
Holt told The Press on Tuesday he’s not backing down from his comment.
“Carrie Underwood is a self-proclaimed vegan vegetarian,” Holt told The Press. “She has had entanglements with the Humane Society of the United States for years. She’s proven herself to be absolutely out in left field as it relates to a lot of these animal cruelty convictions, and for that reason, I guess in my mind she has marginalized herself.
“I think she has proven herself to be not somebody who is interested in the principle law-making decisions. She’s interested in brokering the emotion associated with animal abuse, and it is a very emotional topic for a lot of individuals.”
Holt said he challenged Underwood through twitter, asking if she had read the entire bill.
“She never responded,” Holt said, “and I presume that she either has not read the bill or maybe she has read the bill but still will not see what is clearly written in black and white: that the ultimate goal of this legislation is to end livestock abuse as quickly as possible.”
Holt called the Humane Society of the United States “a radical animal activist group that is basically like PETA with a suit on.”
Holt said he’s taken extra precautions to safeguard passwords to his online accounts. He said there “are people out there who are just waiting to find out anything they can on me and use it as much as they possibly can.”
“I’ve had everything from death threats in the last couple weeks to just awful, terrible emails and phone calls that my secretary in Nashville has had to endure,” he continued. “People have gotten my personal cell phone number, personal email and the email to our (family) farm and written awful, awful things. It’s really kind of amazing how crazy – and I mean that literally – some folks are about some of these topics.”
Holt said it’s not uncommon to receive death threats when dealing with legislation “that animal activists – and I’m talking about radical animal activists” disagree with. He said he makes a clear distinction between such activists and others who just want to help their local animal shelters, for example.
“These (‘radical animal activists’) are people who, for all practical purposes, this is their religion,” Holt said.
When Holt sponsored a horse slaughter bill last year, he said he received physical threats.
“One woman basically told me she was going to kill my kids and hang them from the tree in my front yard,” he said, noting he turned the threat over to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
But it’s not just some animal rights groups and Underwood calling for the governor to veto the bill. The Tennessee Press Association is also against the legislation.
According to Frank Gibson, the TPA’s public policy director, the bill “is a dangerous piece of legislation” because “it creates a slippery slope toward repealing Tennessee’s Reporters Shield Law.” According to Gibson, the bill is the first full-frontal assault on Tennessee’s Reporters Privilege Shield Law since TPA helped pass it in 1973. Gibson said the bill would have “a chilling effect on the ability of the mainstream press to investigate cases of suspected animal abuse.”
Holt disagrees with those assertions.
“We recognize there are some folks who have said we’re going to trample on First Amendment rights with this legislation because it would circumvent the Shield Law and force media outlets to turn over their unedited documentation to law enforcement authorities in the same manner as it would for anyone else who intentionally and knowingly goes out to find animal abuse,” Holt said. “We do want that documentation turned over to law enforcement within 48 hours or the close of the next business day.”
Holt cited three Supreme Court decisions he said would “alleviate concerns that this law may have treaded into a area that hasn’t been tread into before.” Those cases are Associated Press v. NLRB (1937), Houchins v. KQED (1978) and Cohen v. Cowles Media (1991).
“I honestly believe that the concerns of the governor and his careful study of this law is not based on animal activists pleas to have him veto this law,” Holt said. “I believe from my conversations with him that his real concern is that we are not in some way infringing on the first amendment rights of individuals in the press and of our greater constituency.”
Speaking to reporters last week, Haslam said the bill is “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. We’ve obviously got a lot of calls and emails on it. … I’ll be studying it.”
Holt acknowledged some critics have called his sponsorship of the bill a conflict of interest for a livestock producer. Holt has an undergraduate degree in agricultural economics with a minor in animal science and a Master’s of Business Administration.
Legislators have come from a wide variety of occupational backgrounds, he said, from bankers to educators to business professionals.
“For me to transition into the field of agriculture as it relates to state politics to me is a natural movement in this direction,” Holt said, adding he would always pursue agricultural issues “because that’s one of the main reasons I’m at the legislature. I want to protect agriculture as much as I possibly can.”