Pages Menu
Categories Menu

Posted by on Apr 21, 2010 in Law, Politics, Society | 0 comments

Supreme Court Strikes Down Law Banning Depictions of Extreme Animal Cruelty

I’m all for free speech — in fact, I consider myself a firm civil libertarian in this regard — but some “speech” isn’t really speech and shouldn’t be free.

Take, for example, the case of videos depicting extreme cruelty to animals:

The Supreme Court on Tuesday forcefully struck down a federal law aimed at banning depictions of dog fighting and other violence against animals, saying it violated constitutional guarantees of free speech and created a “criminal prohibition of alarming breadth.”

The 8 to 1 ruling, written by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., was a ringing endorsement of the First Amendment’s protection of even distasteful expression. Roberts called “startling and dangerous” the government’s argument that the value of certain categories of speech should be weighed against their societal costs when protecting free speech.

Again, I’m all for the First Amendment, but, to me, animal cruelty videos should be considered akin to child pornography:

The law was enacted in 1999 to forbid sales of so-called crush videos. They appeal to a certain sexual fetish by depicting the torture of animals — cats, dogs, monkeys, mice and hamsters, according to Congress — or showing them being crushed to death by women wearing stiletto heels or with their bare feet. While dog-fighting and other forms of animal cruelty are already illegal, Congress said the legislation was necessary to stop the production of videos for commercial gain.

What was Roberts’ objection?

Roberts’ opinion said the court was not passing judgment about whether a narrower statute limited just to crush videos and “other depictions of extreme animal cruelty” might be constitutional.

But the court said the legislation passed by Congress was far too broad. Anyone who “creates, sells or possesses a depiction of animal cruelty” for commercial gain can be imprisoned for up to five years. A depiction of cruelty was defined as one in which “a living animal is intentionally maimed, mutilated, tortured, wounded or killed.”

Roberts wrote that the definition was so loose that it could include all depictions of wounding or killing animals, even hunting videos or magazines. He said the law’s exemption for works of “serious religious, political, scientific, educational, journalistic, historical or artistic value” was not enough protection, and the court was not reassured by the government’s argument that prosecutions were rare.

That’s just silly. The law in question is clearly aimed at depictions of extreme animal cruelty, not depections of hunting (which I consider cruel but certainly not at the level of what is depicted in these “crush” videos). And so I actually find myself in agreement with Justice Alito, the lone dissenter:

He said the law was enacted “not to suppress speech, but to prevent horrific acts of animal cruelty.” He said that the entire law need not be found unconstitutional, and that the “practical effect” of the ruling would be to spur production of crush videos, which opponents such as the Humane Society of the United States said had decreased with passage of the 1999 law.

As Wayne Pacelle, the head of The Humane Society of the United States, wrote at HuffPo, “[t]he Court got hung up in a stream of hypothetical scenarios, imagining that the law as worded might sweep up the sellers of hunting, bullfighting, and other videos that the federal lawmakers never intended to address.” Furthermore:

Justice Samuel Alito dissented, noting that the majority has struck down “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.” Justice Alito explained that “the animals used in crush videos are living creatures that experience excruciating pain. Our society has long banned such cruelty, which is illegal throughout the country.”

With the Court issuing a disappointing albeit carefully crafted decision, it seems that Congress can step in and write a more narrowly tailored federal statute to prohibit the commercial sale of videos depicting extreme and illegal acts of cruelty. Clearly, it should not be legal to stage a dogfight in your basement and then sell the video of this criminal action. It is illegal to molest a child and sell a video of this sort of child pornography, and the same should be true for the most extreme and widely criminalized acts of animal cruelty.

With this ruling, a narrower statute is certainly necessary and ought to be enacted as soon as possible. Surely even ardent civil libertarians could get behind that.

And I would add this: While depictions of such animal cruelty ought to be banned, those who inflict the cruelty and those who party to it ought to face significant punishment under the law. There are laws in place, yes, but they are not nearly strong enough, and we ought to take the welfare of animals far more seriously than we do.

As for these disgusting “crush” videos, which I had no idea even existed before learning of this case, Alito is right, they are “a form of depraved entertainment that has no social value.” But who are the utterly depraved individuals who make them, and who enjoy them? I realize that there is extraordinary depravity out there, and I realize that depravity is a matter of perspective (consider those ignorant bigots who think that homosexuality is depraved, for example), but surely there is a line than can be drawn. It is one then when consenting adults engage in certain activities with each other, quite another when children or animals or even adults who are in no position to consent are abused, tortured, and, in this case, killed.

There should be zero tolerance for such abhorrent behaviour.

(Cross-posted from The Reaction.)