Supreme Court to Rule on Free Speech Claim Over Animal Cruelty Films

240-dogfightingThe Supreme Court today accepted U.S. v. Stevens, which will decide whether Robert Stevens of Pittsville, Virginia can be prosecuted for selling videos of pit bull fights. The case could decided the broader question of animal snuff films, crush films, and other disturbing images being sold on the Internet. This case focuses on a federal law criminalizing sale or possession of such images.

These films discussed earlier often show animals being crushed or bitten for a group of people with sadistic and subhuman tastes. However, it may also present the ultimate question of free speech. States are moving toward treating the sale and even possession of such images as a crime. However, the owners are likely to claim that such fights are legal in many countries and represent a form of free speech.

In this case, the court of appeals agreed and found that the law unconstitutionally restricted speech. For the story and Third Circuit opinion, click here. Judge Brooks Smith wrote: “Preventing cruelty to animals, although an exceedingly worthy goal, simply does not implicate interests of the same magnitude as protecting children from physical and psychological harm.”

The civil liberties concern is the degree to which the government can criminalize the content of picture, emails, and publications. Animal cruelty is a broad potential category of restricted speech. The federal law defines it in the following way:

(1) the term “depiction of animal cruelty” means any visual or auditory depiction, including any photograph, motion-picture film, video recording, electronic image, or sound recording of conduct in which a living animal is intentionally maimed, mutilated, tortured, wounded, or killed, if such conduct is illegal under Federal law or the law of the State in which the creation, sale, or possession takes place, regardless of whether the maiming, mutilation, torture, wounding, or killing took place in the State . . .

This would obviously include any cockfighting or dogfighting videos. It notably also includes auditory depiction and could include small audio clips interpreted as cruel under this definition. There is an exception for “any depiction that has serious religious, political, scientific, educational, journalistic, historical, or artistic value.” That would appear to exclude religious sacrifices. However, this standard can be read broadly or narrowly. What does “serious” mean? A serious religion or artist or journalist is a matter of considerable debate. Does this include the harming of animals for films when it is not necessary to do so but the director wants gritty reality?

By the way, that other Stevens in the Court is celebrating his 89th birthday today.

13 thoughts on “Supreme Court to Rule on Free Speech Claim Over Animal Cruelty Films”

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  2. Ok, why don’t they regulate it like a pawn shop or a junk car/salvage yard?

    I do not see how it can be totally banned without some innocent prosecutions. Yes, like Oh Shit. Well I must make my way to Texas City to see how that one is crapping out.

    Viva La Tejas,

    On Todays date in Texas History, Santa Anna was caught sleeping and Gen Houston, the drunkard he was as well s runnning away from debts in Tennessee, seized upon that opportunity and Captured the sleeping General aka el Presidente de Mexico.

  3. Wayne Pacelle, head of The Humane Society of the United States, posted some thoughts about this case today on his blog. He said, “The makers and sellers of these videos are not making an argument or expressing a viewpoint—they are simply profiting from extreme cruelty, from predation on the weakest among us. This is a far cry from the values that the First Amendment is supposed to protect.” And he said the federal law is “an essential complement” to state laws; the sale of these videos is often the only public act that law enforcement can identify.

  4. C.L., that is the way the First Amendment usually works: its protection of free speech protects photographs of crimes from prosecution. The Supreme Court created an exception for child pornography, however, because it would be “difficult, if not impossible, to halt the exploitation of children by pursuing only those who produce the photographs and movies,” and not also banning the child pornography itself. New York v. Ferber (1982). Now the Court is being asked to extend that rationale to crush videos and the like. I think that that makes sense, except that the federal statute at issue bars depictions of animal cruelty even if the cruelty does not occur for the purpose of photographing it. In other words, it bans photographs of a crime whether or not the crime was committed for the sake of the photograph and therefore does not fall within the rationale for allowing the prosecution of child pornography.

  5. The statute makes it a crime to “create[], sell[], or possess[] a depiction of animal cruelty with the intention of placing that depiction in interstate or foreign commerce for commercial gain.” To the extent that the statute applies to cases where the cruelty did not occur for the sake of the photograph, as when the photographer took a picture of an act of cruelty with which he had no connection, I agree that the statute violates the First Amendment.

  6. Sir,

    I can agree with you that Child Porn is disgusting at the very minimal standard. Those folks should be shot and not waste anymore money IF THEY IF FACT DID DO IT. This is not a He said she said situation.

    While I do not condon violence towards animals, nor have I heard that this is a sincerely held religious question. The fact is Pit Bulls are inately vicious.

    Would it make a difference if, “Someone just happened to pass by and see a pack of dogs fighting in the city and they filmed it?” They are guilty as the Statute or Ordinance is written.

    What would be the difference if you filmed a lion in the wild eating its prey? Or eating an animal of a different breed?

    While I do not agree that these animals should be raised and treated the way they are. Regulate it.

    I believe that PETA has good points and bad points. I am a fan of the circus and they have accosted and offended myself and my family. I only will attend a Barnum and Bailey Production as I am aware how they treat these animals. I realize that some people will be abusive to the animals but with the cost of them, does that really make sense?

    So I conculed this with PETA: People Eating Tasty Animals.

  7. The correct docket number is 08-769. In my opinion, the issue is not whether preventing cruelty to animals is of the same magnitude as preventing child molestation. Rather, the issue is that, both in the case of child pornography produced with a real child, and in the case of animal snuff films or crush videos, a crime is committed for the sake of producing the photograph. In other words, this is not just a photograph of a crime, but is also a crime committed for the sake of a photograph. That is why, in both cases, an exception to the First Amendment is appropriate.

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