The 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.