SCOTUS animal cruelty ruling draws human ire

Film producers Chris Palmer and Peter Kimball take issue with the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of animal cruelty film seller Robert Stevens a few days ago. In an op ed piece appearing in today’s San Francisco Chronicle, the two decidedly more respected and respectable members of the human community (Palmer heads the Center for Environmental Filmmaking at American University; Kimball is writer/director of the wildlife film Badger Insurance: The Plight of the North American Badger) argue that “videos of dog-fighting and animal mutilation — created not to educate or inform but merely to titillate — have no constitutional protection.”

The Court, Palmer and Kimball say, “has gone too far in protecting the free speech of those who would profit from films depicting wanton and malicious cruelty to animals solely for customers’ entertainment. We believe that these types of videos deserve no legal protection whatsoever.”

The case in question, United States vs. Stevens, centered on Robert Stevens, a purveyor of the video series “Dogs of Velvet and Steel.” Stevens produced and sold videos of pit bulls engaging in dogfights and viciously attacking other animals. These videos include graphic depictions of torture and brutality, including a pit bull mutilating the lower jaw of a live pig. In January 2005, Stevens was convicted of violating the Animal Cruelty Act (1999), which criminalized the trafficking of depictions of animal cruelty, except those with “serious religious, political, scientific, educational, journalistic, historical, or artistic value.” A federal appeals court overturned Stevens’ conviction and ruled that the animal cruelty law violated his First Amendment right to free speech. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s ruling.

The fundamental question is this: Does the Animal Cruelty Act violate the First Amendment right of freedom of speech? Certainly, the right to free speech is one of the paramount freedoms in our society. Our country was founded on the principle that people should not be persecuted for voicing unpopular opinions. Naturally, in order to be effective, this freedom protects disturbing and offensive speech.

However, there are very specific types of speech that we, as a society, have deemed so despicable and so lacking in merit that they do not deserve protection, among them child pornography, obscenity, threats and incitement of violence. Animal cruelty should be one of these unprotected categories. As Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, wrote, “We wouldn’t allow the sale of videos of actual child abuse or murder staged for the express purpose of selling videos of such criminal acts.” There is no reason to ignore depictions of animal cruelty while rightfully criminalizing parallel depictions of child abuse.

The Supreme Court is not in the habit of overturning itself, but in decisions such as Tuesday’s ruling one hopes for quick reversal of fortunes of the animal kingdom. As long as there are depraved people getting some sort of kicks out of the suffering of others, there will be shameless people like Robert Stevens ready to benefit.

True/Slant Contributor Rick Ungar makes a good point that First Amendment rights must be carefully protected. In a post immediately following the ruling he wrote:

While I am as disgusted by these videos as most, the majority does have a point. The law, as drafted, could result in unintended consequences – going so far as to ban the depiction of bullfights as graphically painted in Ernest Hemingway novels. When we’re talking about first amendment rights, Congress is obligated to be careful in constructing laws that can produce an unintended chilling effect on so important of a right.

Though I’m a Hemingway fan and occasional Spain-o-phile, I’d have as hard a time arguing for bullfights as for dog-fights. Went to one a few years back, had to leave before they dragged the bull out. Ungar and others suggest that the answer to this human rights v animal rights issue will lie in enactment of narrow laws banning specific cruelties such as the “crush videos” (women in high heels stomping small animals) cited by Justice Samuel Alito in his dissenting opinion.

This space hopes for a fast track on such legislation. One way or another, barbaric acts need to be banned. For my part, a ban on Robert Stevens wouldn’t be a bad idea either.

Supreme Court gets it wrong with animal cruelty ruling.

Animal rights & SCOTUS opinions

Finding oneself in agreement with Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito can be an alarming development in itself, but it’s hard not to agree at least in part with his dissenting statement in yesterday’s 8-to-1 Supreme Court decision.

In a major First Amendment ruling, the Supreme Court on Tuesday struck down a federal law that made it a crime to create or sell dogfight videos and other depictions of animal cruelty.

Justice Alito wrote, in his dissension, that the now-struck statute was enacted “not to suppress speech, but to prevent horrific acts of animal cruelty — and in particular, the creation and commercial exploitation of ‘crush videos,’ a form of depraved entertainment that has no social value.” I’ve never watched a crush video, and certainly have no plans to do so.  It is at least heartening to know that Justice Alito has this much heart. (It’s not been evident in some of his earlier rulings.)

The specific case that brought about yesterday’s ruling, exploitation of pit bull fights through sales of dog fight videos, is about a different form of cruelty to animals. Stepping back a little it’s possible to see what the court was protecting: not any right to commit barbaric acts, but too-broad application of First Amendment rights.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., writing for the majority in the 8-to-1 decision, said that the law had created “a criminal prohibition of alarming breadth” and that the government’s aggressive defense of the law was “startling and dangerous.”

The decision left open the possibility that Congress could enact a narrower law that would pass constitutional muster. But the existing law, Chief Justice Roberts wrote, covered too much speech protected by the First Amendment.

Hopefully, a new and narrower law will come soon.

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 law, said Wayne Pacelle, the president of the Humane Society of the United States, “almost immediately dried up the crush video industry.”

But prosecutions under the law appear to have been pursued only against people accused of trafficking in dogfighting videos.

Chief Justice Roberts concluded his majority opinion by suggesting that a more focused law “limited to crush videos and other depictions of extreme animal cruelty” might survive First Amendment scrutiny.

Mr. Pacelle, of the Humane Society, called for a legislative response to Tuesday’s ruling. “Congress should within a week introduce narrowly crafted legislation,” he said, “to deal with animal crush videos and illegal animal fighting activities.”

Some years ago I was approached to do a story on cockfighting, then legal in a number of states. I knew the wife of the man who suggested the piece, the purpose of which was to explain what a fine and macho “sport” this was. Utterly amazed at the names of those cockfighting enthusiasts whom he had lined up for me to interview (after the fight) — and no way was I going to attend such an event — I sought out a number of them and asked for public comment on why cockfighting should be supported. The article, exposing a number of otherwise respectable men of the local community, brought widespread condemnation upon my head for spreading such trash. Nobody seemed to notice the names behind the trash. I thought it would embarrass the spokesmen. Sometimes free speech protects those who are beyond embarrassment.

I, for one, cannot quite understand why Robert Stevens, convicted of selling dog-fighting videos and now acquitted, is not embarrassed to have his picture and his business practices in the morning paper.

Supreme Court Rejects Ban on Animal Cruelty Videos – NYTimes.com.

Breaking news on broken-down joints

There’s old news — joint replacements for athletes are downright commonplace, seniors in their 80s and 90s are getting new hips — and now there’s good news. Researchers at the University of California San Francisco, led by sports medicine chief C. Benjamin Ma MD, are finding that damage to the cartilage connecting the foot bone to the ankle bone to the leg bone etc might not have to be permanent.

As almost anyone with a series of sports injuries may know, cartilage damage is permanent. In the words of Dr. Benjamin Ma, chief of sports medicine at UCSF, “cartilage is just lazy” — it doesn’t like to regenerate, so when it gets damaged or worn down through use or injury, it won’t come back on its own.

But Ma and his research team have discovered that given very specific circumstances, cartilage will, in fact, regenerate. The team has been taking knee cartilage from subjects and placing it on a matrix and under some very specific conditions, it is forced to regenerate.

“Cartilage cells are very lazy. They don’t like to grow if they don’t have to,” he said. “So we fool them by doing this particular maneuver and they feel they have to grow, and they form new cartilage. Then we glue it back into the knee.”

The new method has proved to be safe and it helps improve function, and now it is undergoing Phase 3 clinical trials to see whether it in fact works better than microfracture surgeries currently used to treat cartilage injuries.

Down the road, Ma and his team hope to see if there is an application of this method that could help people suffering from arthritis, which is also a cartilage disorder.

That cheer being heard across cyberspace is coming from millions of amateur athletes and the entire population over 50, almost every one of whom could use a little newly invigorated cartilage.

Read more at the San Francisco Examiner.

Super Bowl Ads: Anti-abortion, yes — gay romance, well, maybe

Super Bowl watchers at this house tend to be interested in the ball game. But elsewhere, apparently, the star attractions are the commercials. If you get bored in between the ads, you can even keep your laptop handy and bring up winners — winner commercials, that is — from past decades.

Being only mildly interested in this year’s game and not the least bit interested in whatever is on sale for a gazillion dollars a minute, I had been blissfully unaware of the hype and hysteria surrounding the event — until an e-mail earlier today asking if I knew anything about the anti-choice ad scheduled and simultaneous rejection of an ad that could be termed pro-gay. I did not, but as it turns out, NPR does:

This year, CBS is airing an anti-abortion commercial featuring college football star Tim Tebow, with his mother. The ad is sponsored by the conservative group Focus on the Family. Within a few weeks of that ad’s approval, CBS turned down a commercial for the Super Bowl produced by a new gay dating site called ManCrunch.com.

The Tebow and ManCrunch ads raise questions about not just what networks want in Super Bowl advertisements, but also what potential advertisers really want from the Super Bowl.

The 30-second ManCrunch ad shows two guys on a couch watching a football game. They’re rooting for their respective teams. Then, they both reach for potato chips at the same time. Their hands touch. The music builds. Then they kiss — rather comically.

I have a few problems with Focus on the Family. I have a LOT of problems with those who would have us return to the horrors of pre-Roe v Wade. Without roaming around the site a great deal I think I have a few problems with ManCrunch — but I’m not exactly their target audience. I had no problem at all, before now, with Tim Tebow, who seems a pretty good guy.

But suddenly there are problems all over. Emily’s List is petitioning CBS to toss the Tebow ad. The ad has its own, fast-growing Facebook fan club for crying out loud. Planned Parenthood is weighing in with a YouTube video in response to the tempest in the Tebow teapot.

ManCrunch, meanwhile, left out in the cold with their ad that reportedly cost $100,000, has gotten at least twice that much publicity and will probably have their own Facebook fan club before it’s all over.

Are you ready for some football?

Adventure travel for the young — at heart

Not long ago I was fond of bragging, with more than a small amount of smug self- satisfaction, about completing Circus 101 class at the San Francisco Circus School shortly after I became eligible for Medicare. Although it was quickly evident that I can’t do upside down any more without tending to throw up, I was more flexible than the muscular hunks and quite good, if I do say so, on the top of the pyramids. I was always the top of the pyramid because nobody wanted to step on the little old lady. Moments of grandeur and glory, those were.

Well, tell that to Ilse Telesmanich, 90. She’ll be hiking in South Africa this summer. Or Tom Lackey, who is into wing-walking over the English Channel at 89. (“My family thinks I’m mad,” Mr. Lackey said in a telephone interview discussing the flight with New York Times writer Kirk Johnson — his 20th wing-walk. “I probably am.”)

Intensely active older men and women who have the means and see the twilight years as just another stage of exploration are pushing further and harder, tossing aside presumed limitations. And the global travel and leisure industry, long focused on youth, is racing to keep up.

“This is an emerging market phenomenon based on tens of millions of longer-lived men and women with more youth vitality than ever imagined,” said Ken Dychtwald, a psychologist and author who has written widely about aging and economics.

And the so-called experiential marketplace — sensation, education, adventure and culture, estimated at $56 billion and growing, according to a new study from George Washington University — is where much of that new old-money is headed.

At the Grand Circle Corporation, for example, a Boston-based company that specializes in older travelers, adventure tours have gone from 16 percent of passenger volume in 2001 to 50 percent for advance bookings this year, even as the average traveler’s age has risen to 68 from 62.

At Exploritas, a nonprofit educational travel group previously known as Elderhostel, the proportion of people over 75 choosing adventure-tour options is up 27 percent since 2004. The sharpest growth has been in the over-85 crowd, more than 70 percent.

At VBT, a bike touring company in Vermont that does rides in countries around the world, the number of bikers over 70 has doubled in the last 10 years.

“Unusual is way more popular now,” said Alan E. Lewis, chairman of Grand Circle, “and with this audience, that’s a major shift.”

It’s not all fun and high adventure — medical insurance with companies such as  InsureMyTrip.com is likely to quadruple, transporting medications can be problematical, and ordinary risk factors (though wiser elders often fare better than macho youngers) remain.

But it’s enough to make me renew my Exploritas membership, hit the par course more often and shut up about circus school.

Seeing Old Age as a Never-Ending Adventure – NYTimes.com.

Skip the cold meds – hit the gym

Just in case the cold weather and a few sniffles are luring you toward the couch in front of the TV, you may want to stop and read Wall Street Journal health writer Laura Landro’s article in today’s “Personal Journal” section first.

Regular workouts may help fight off colds and flu, reduce the risk of certain cancers and chronic diseases and slow the process of aging.

Who knew? Well, most of us knew, we just haven’t been convinced. But Landro’s piece is stuffed — no offense to couches or potatoes — with evidence from new research, including data on fitness v the common cold. The fit, it turns out, have fewer and less severe colds, of shorter duration than the afflictions of their less-fit fellow creatures.

No pill or nutritional supplement has the power of near-daily moderate activity in lowering the number of sick days people take,” says David Nieman, director of Appalachian State University’s Human Performance Lab in Kannapolis, N.C. Dr. Nieman has conducted several randomized controlled studies showing that people who walked briskly for 45 minutes, five days a week over 12 to 15 weeks had fewer and less severe upper respiratory tract infections, such as colds and flu. These subjects reduced their number of sick days 25% to 50% compared with sedentary control subjects, he says.

Medical experts say inactivity poses as great a health risk as smoking, contributing to heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, cancer, depression, arthritis and osteoporosis. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 36% of U.S. adults didn’t engage in any leisure-time physical activity in 2008.

Even lean men and women who are inactive are at higher risk of death and disease. So while reducing obesity is an important goal, “the better message would be to get everyone to walk 30 minutes a day” says Robert Sallis, co-director of sports medicine at Fontana Medical Center, a Southern California facility owned by managed-care giant Kaiser Permanente. “We need to refocus the national message on physical activity, which can have a bigger impact on health than losing weight.”

[INFORMED]

Researchers are also investigating whether exercise can influence aging in the body. In particular, they are looking at whether exercise lengthens telomeres, the strands of DNA at the tips of chromosomes. When telomeres get too short, cells no longer can divide and they become inactive, a process associated with aging, cancer and a higher risk of death.

A companion article goes further, suggesting that “spurring more exercise out of the half of Americans who are already active is just as important as coaxing the sedentary off the sofa.” The jury on this, however, is still out. For the time being, you could focus on warding off the January chest cold and stretching out the telomeres.

The Hidden Benefits of Exercise – WSJ.com.

Making Sport of Boxing Day

Today is Boxing Day, a good day for good deeds. Beginning either some time in the Middle Ages or when Queen Victoria reigned — depending on whose history book you read — Boxing Day is a time to box up holiday leftovers for the hungry, or take-out lunches for the hired help, or alms for the poor. It is traditionally observed on December 26, though sometimes moved around to avoid a Sunday happening.

But now, reports Joel Millman in the Wall Street Journal, it is being taken over for sport.

In some places, Boxing Day really is about pounding on an opponent in the boxing ring. For some fans of fisticuffs, Boxing Day is the biggest boxing day of the year.

That’s certainly the case in Ghana, where tonight Accra’s Ohene Djan Sports Stadium will be rocking with fighters and their fans. The nine-match program starts at sundown. Six bouts are for all-Africa titles, three of those featuring a Ghanaian hero facing a rival from Nigeria. Ringside seats cost 10 Ghanaian cedi, just under $7.

Boxing is a Boxing Day staple across Africa. Besides Ghana, it’s a tradition in Uganda, Malawi, Zambia and Tanzania — all places where Britons once ruled and left a Boxing Day legacy, if not quite the one Queen Victoria envisioned when she made Boxing Day an official holiday in Great Britain.

Somehow, the insertion of boxing into Boxing Day seems ominous. I went to a boxing match once. Some sports-writer friends of mine at the Richmond Times Dispatch, where I was working in the very olden days, invited me to join them in ringside seats. We got there early, people were skipping around just about at my eye level, beer-drinking was going on with enthusiasm and it boded to be a fine time. Soon, however, the action began. The blue-trunks guy opened a cut above the eye of the red-trunks guy, a tooth may have been knocked out, terrible sounds were heard in the land. When blood started splattering from the cut over the eye, I am still embarrassed to admit, tears starting coming from mine. I was never invited back. I think that was when I started dating a guy from the radio station across the street.

Maybe, we can still hope and trust, people somewhere are boxing up donations for the peace and goodwill of humankind. But this latest news about a once-goodhearted holiday does not bode well for the future.

Season’s Beatings: ‘Boxing Day’ Takes a Pugilistic Turn – WSJ.com.

Get smarter before the New Year? Sure you can

Scientific proof is limited. But this space, in the interest of staving off dementia while smartening up the general population, has been investigating recent reports on benefits of brain exercise. (One recent report in this space said crossword puzzles aren’t any big brain deal, which is mildly contradicted by the report below, which proves one cannot believe everything one reads online. Still… evidence is coming in.)

Doing crossword puzzles, reading, and playing cards daily may delay the rapid memory decline that occurs if people develop dementia, according to a U.S. study.

Researchers from New York’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine spent five years following 488 people aged 75 to 85 who did not have dementia at the start of the study.

Participants were tracked for how often they engaged in six endeavors: reading, writing, doing crossword puzzles, playing board or card games, having group discussions and playing music. Almost 1/4 of them developed dementia (that’s the bad news) during the study period. But the more engagement, the slower the decline.

Denise Park, PhD, founder of the Center for Vital Longevity at the University of Texas and a panelist on the recent brain fitness segment of PBS’ Life (Part 2) series, argued against crossword puzzles in this space (Can You Beef Up Your Brain, 12-09-09.) The social component (think tackling a new dance step) of brain exercise, she and many others maintain, is critical. Or the multi-layered element involved in learning to play a musical instrument or taking up photography — Park believes those sorts of endeavors will always beat crossword puzzles and solitary computer games.

Now comes Kathryn Bresnik of ProProfs.com. Bresnik isn’t quite ready to assert that you can improve your cognitive function right this minute by playing online brain games, but she cites a recent report (by Mary Brophy Marcus in USA Today) that the movement is gaining traction:

Computer games have been inching their way into the medical world over the last few years and though your local hospital may not become a mini-arcade, experts say patients can expect to see more gaming in medical settings in the years to come, especially brain games.

That report covered a recent Games for Health Conference in Boston, which for the first time featured a day of sessions specifically focused on gaming and cognitive health, and presentations by researchers from such mildly disparate sites as Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Warner Brothers Interactive Entertainment. (Pick which to believe.)

For the past two days, since being alerted to ProProfs.com, I have been sneaking over to their game page, doing things like the Family Word Search or the Quick Calculate math one. Being an admitted novice to computer games, I found it pretty nifty to have that little voice telling me That. Is. Correct. when I did something right, and presenting instant tallies of time and scores.

So, okay, I haven’t made it into the top 50 for this week, and the games I chose are probably designed for 7th graders rather than 70-somethings. But here’s the thing: Every day, my scores are just a tiny bit better. This seems proof, albeit slightly anecdotal, that I am getting smarter. You may want to give it a try. If I can get smart enough to embed the game that the site tells me I can embed into a blog, it will be done at a later date, and perhaps we can poll True/Slant readers for increased cognitive function.

One caveat: While you are doing computer games, you cannot be doing dishes. Or writing blogs, for that matter. Smartness has its price.

via A crossword puzzle a day may delay dementia – Aging- msnbc.com.