Last Tuesday’s ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court (SC), negating a 1999 federal law prohibiting the production and sale of videos depicting animal cruelty, looks, at first reading, like the Justices have endorsed cruel acts against animals, in favor of the freedom of speech. After reading the court’s decision (559 U.S. ____ (2010) No. 08-769, U.S. v. Stevens) here is my understanding.
The appeal that came before the SC was a case against filmmaker Robert J. Stevens of Pittsville, Va., a self-professed journalist and authority on pit bulls, who had been prosecuted for the sale of videos he recorded showing dogs fighting and attacking other animals. In 2004, he was sentenced under a federal law (18 U.S.C. Sect. 48), enacted in 1999, that banned the trafficking of “depictions of animal cruelty.”
The law was supposedly an effort to limit the sale of a specific type of video in which women crush small animals to death under their feet (thus the term “crush videos.”) Sales of crush videos, which reportedly appeal to a kind of sexual fetish, were said to have decreased dramatically after the law was enacted.
According to Adam Liptak of The New York Times, “When President Bill Clinton signed the bill, he expressed reservations, prompted by the First Amendment, and instructed the Justice Department to limit prosecutions to ‘wanton cruelty to animals designed to appeal to a prurient interest in sex.'”
The SC’s response Tuesday stated that “Congress enacted 18 U. S. C. §48 to criminalize the commercial creation, sale, or possession of certain depictions of animal cruelty. The statute addresses only portrayals of harmful acts, not the underlying conduct. It applies to any visual or auditory depiction ‘in which a living animal is intentionally maimed, mutilated, tortured, wounded, or killed…” The SC upheld Stevens’ appeal, stating that the federal law “is substantially overbroad and therefore invalid under the First Amendment,” and noting that the federal law might be taken to mean that even films depicting legalized game hunting would fall within the law’s scope.
Animal rights groups are understandably disappointed in the ruling. Representative Elton Gallegly of California has now drafted an amendment to the law (H.R. 5092) and no doubt others will support it if it makes clear the types of animal cruelty which would be covered. Keep in touch with your U.S. Representative about H.R. 5092 and help fight animal abuse.
It’s the least we can do.