Animal abuse supported by US Supreme Court - Again
April 21, 2010
The Supreme Court's decision on Tuesday to strike down a law banning the sale of graphic animal cruelty videos has won the support of First Amendment advocates and the ire of animal protection groups.
Supreme Court justices, by an 8-1 vote, ruled the federal law was "substantially overbroad, and therefore invalid under the First Amendment."
The head of an organization that defends the First Amendment applauded Tuesday's ruling, saying, "Speech is protected whether it's popular or unpopular, harmful or unharmful."
But the president of the Humane Society of the United States, who emphasized his organization is a "devoted defender of the First Amendment," said no one should be able to profit from "malicious, illegal, and violent acts."
Tuesday's high court ruling also threw out the conviction of a Virginia man sentenced to three years in prison under the law for selling dogfighting videos. Robert Stevens of Pittsville, Virginia, appealed his conviction, saying it violated his right of free speech. The U.S Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia tossed out Stevens' conviction and ruled the 1999 law was unconstitutional.
The Department of Justice later appealed that decision to the Supreme Court.
The 11-year-old law at the center of this debate -- the Depiction of Animal Cruelty Act -- banned the interstate sale of videos depicting illegal and extreme acts of animal cruelty, including dog fighting and "crush videos." Those are "sexual gratification" videos in which puppies, kittens, and other small animals are crushed, smothered, and pierced to death -- often by women wearing high-heeled shoes.
In Tuesday's decision, justices ruled the law was too broad and could be interpreted to include such activities as hunting.
"Hunting is unlawful in the District of Columbia, for example, but there is an enormous national market for hunting-related depictions, greatly exceeding the demand for crush videos or animal fighting depictions," Chief Justice John Roberts, wrote in the court's opinion for the majority. "Because the statute allows each jurisdiction to export its laws to the rest of the country, (the law) applies to any magazine or video depicting lawful hunting that is sold in the Nation's Capital."
The ruling also noted that dog fighting and animal cruelty are illegal nationwide.
Justice Samuel Alito cast the lone dissenting opinion in the Court's opinion.
"The Court strikes down in its entirety a valuable statute that was enacted not to suppress speech, but to prevent horrific acts of animal cruelty -- in particular, the creation and commercial exploitation of 'crush videos,' a form of depraved entertainment that has no social value," Alito wrote. "The Court's approach, which has the practical effect of legalizing the sale of such videos and is thus likely to spur a resumption of their production, is unwarranted."
In reaching the decision, however, the court said it was not ruling on the validity of a law that would only address crush videos.
Free speech supporters cheer
First Amendment advocates hailed the ruling as a triumph for free speech.
"This was a victory for free speech because it once again validated the view that the government doesn't have all-encompassing powers to shut down speech it doesn't like or deem appropriate," wrote Kansas City Star Editorial Page Columnist Yael T. Abouhalkah. "(Just) because the animal rights groups didn't like the videos or want people to see them, they couldn't use a broad law to prohibit videos of activities such as showing pit bulls fighting each other to the death."
The Media Coalition also praised the Court's opinion. The organization that defends the First Amendment had urged the Court to rule the law unconstitutional.
But on its Web site , the coalition said it wasn't defending people making videos about dog fights or other acts of animal cruelty.
"This case is not about preventing animal cruelty, but about protecting everyone's free speech rights under the First Amendment," the organization states. "No one disputes that the government may penalize acts of animal cruelty. But that does not mean that the government may also penalize speech about or images of animal cruelty."
The group agreed with the Court that law was too broad.
"The problem is that the law applies to any depiction of intentional harm to animals, even if the act depicted was legal in the place where it was created (for example, as the appeals court pointed out in rejecting the ban, U.S. news footage of a bullfight in Spain)," the organization states.
The group also warned the law could be applied to people making documentaries and films that depict animal cruelty, including the Academy Award-winning film Apocalypse Now that shows a live water buffalo hacked to death with a machete or scenes of actual cockfighting from the 2009 film Fast and Furious 4.
Humane Society responds
During an interview with ConsumerAffairs.com, the president of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) said his organization is disappointed with the Court's ruling.
"We're big First Amendment fans," said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the HSUS. "But this case is about conduct. It's not about free speech. No one should be able to profit from malicious, illegal, and violent acts."
Pacelle also disputed arguments that the law is so broad it could be applied to people making documentaries and movies that depict animal cruelty.
"We never felt constrained in the 11 years the law has been in effect from showing videos that involve the mistreatment of animals," he said. "We're not selling them for a profit. We didn't cause harm to an animal for the purpose of creating a video. And there are explicit exemptions in the law for educational, artistic, and political uses of videos. It was written in anticipation of that argument and it nullifies that argument.
He added: "These are ivory tower people who are not living in the world making those arguments. We deal in a world with dog fighter and crush video people."
Seeking a fix
Despite the court's ruling, Pacelle said his organization isn't giving up the fight to stop people from making a profit from videos that depict horrific acts of animal cruelty.
"We're already talking to members of Congress to introduce new, narrowly-tailored legislation to address this problem," he said.
An HSUS investigation that exposed people making "crush videos" prompted congressional leaders to enact the original law, Pacelle said.
"We found some 3,000 separately produced animal crush videos on the Internet -- videos of women in high heel shoes crushing small animals for sexual gratification -- and we thought it was appalling," he told us. "But these people were doing this in a private setting and local law enforcement was not able to stop them."
HSUS wanted to close that gaping hole in the law.
"The only reason people make videos showing acts of cruelty to animals is to make a profit," Pacelle said, adding crush videos can sell for as much as $300 each. "There is no other reason to do these crush videos than to sell them for a profit."
After the 1999 law went into effect, the market for crush videos disappeared.
"That law dried up the market," Pacelle said. "It was very successful without a single prosecution. So we turned our attention to those peddling dog fighting videos. And all the arrests made under that 11-year-old statute were for selling dog fighting videos."
Action urgently needed
Tuesday's decision by the Supreme Court will cause resurgence in the dogfighting and crush video industry, Pacelle warned.
"They've already gone back into business," he said. "This case came up on appeal. It was a year ago when the Third Circuit Court overturned the statute. And since that happened, crush videos have repopulated the Web.
"This decision will absolutely fuel this industry and accelerate the commercial sale of these videos," he added.
Congressional leaders need to move quickly and draft specific legislation to stop the sale and proliferation of these "horrific" videos, Pacelle said. "Congress should act swiftly to make sure the First Amendment is not used as a shield for those committing barbaric acts of cruelty, and then peddling their videos on the Internet."