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.

Palin, Pelosi & the politics of scorn

Much ado is being made over two lady politicos these days, Sarah Palin for her six-figure fees and Nancy Pelosi for her legislative expertise. Both are commendable — depending on how one chooses to commend — but unfortunately they are continuing to feed the politics of scorn. Which is unlikely to lead to bi-partisanship or collegiality any time soon. Maybe both are dead.

Palin’s usefulness to her party is a matter of dispute. According to two prominent speakers at a Wednesday breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor (as reported by Monitor writer Dave Cook), Palin’s rise is great good news for the Democrats.

“Look at this dynamic that is produced with Sarah Palin,” said Stanley Greenberg, chairman of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research. “You have John McCain having to have Sarah Palin to save him [in a primary election race]…”

In the aftermath of the passage of healthcare reform, the ongoing discussion is “Barack Obama against Sarah Palin on healthcare,” he said.

Mr. Greenberg, who served as President Clinton’s pollster, argued that “The face of the Republican Party to the country is not the ‘tea party,’ it is Sarah Palin.”

James Carville, President Clinton’s campaign manager and the other speaker at Wednesday’s breakfast, suggested a test to the assembled journalists. “Do me favor. Call five Democratic consultants and leave a message and say I am doing a story on Sarah Palin and call five Republicans, and see who returns the phone call. I think we all know the answer to that. The Democrats will be on the phone so fast.”

Much as some of us do not admire Sarah Palin, the sneer factor employed by her detractors can be oppressive. (Come on, if you’re an anti-Palin, think of the slurs you have slung her way.) She is, herself, a master of derision in a by-golly sort of fashion, and it is this that brings loud huzzahs from her audiences when she takes on the Democrats.

Not to be outdone, Speaker Pelosi (whom I appreciate and respect) was heaping scorn upon the Republicans in speeches to California audiences this week,

… saying they “have nothing to sell” to the American people except a crude caricature of her as the midterm elections approach.

Pelosi, D-San Francisco, was surrounded at the Phillip and Sala Burton Center by ardent advocates of health reform, who cheered when she was cheerful and roared when she was defiant. And she was proudly defiant.

“I couldn’t care less,” she said of GOP efforts to use her as campaign fundraising bait. “I should be thanking them. … It really helps me with my fundraising.”

The issues are real, and occasionally that is made clear:

“This is a bill about the middle class. This is a bill about small businesses. This is a bill about affordability,” Pelosi said.

Still, Pelosi warned Democrats that the fight isn’t over, saying Republicans “are unabashed in wanting to rid us of this … and one way they think they can do it is by making gross misrepresentations to senior citizens” with what she called a “campaign of fear.”

Appearing before a crowd dominated by seniors carrying signs of appreciation – “Thank you, madame speaker” – Pelosi was lauded by a parade of admirers, including Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, doctors and senior advocates who praised her tireless push for the measure.

Admittedly, Pelosi was in friendly territory this week, as Palin has been in recent days herself.

Palin last weekend put Pelosi and Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid at the center of her campaign-style speech to Tea Partiers attending a rally in Searchlight, Nev., Reid’s hometown. “You’re fired,” she said of the two Democratic standard-bearers.

This may be the way politics works. But wouldn’t it be nice if occasionally, some way could be found for opposing sides at least to be civil in the interest of the common good.

Defiant Pelosi scorns Republicans.

Jenna & Barbara Bush doing good? Building better global health? Believe it

Saying good things about anyone named Bush has not been a priority of this space. But an article by Sarah Adler that appeared in today’s San Francisco Chronicle, and a quick visit to the Global Health Corps Web site, suggest that the former first twins have found a way to turn their considerable name recognition and fund raising skills into an innovative program at work to improve health access and care in the U.S. and across the globe.

When first daughter Jenna Bush attended a Bay Area AIDS summit hosted by Google.org two years ago, some skeptics doubted it would amount to more than a photo op.

But they were wrong. In a conversation with a Google staffer and a Stanford AIDS activist at one session, she helped come up with a big idea: A plan to improve health care access in the poorest parts of the United States and the world. What may have seemed like a pie-in-the-sky plan has morphed into a nongovernmental organization with an impressive roster of donors and more than $1 million in funding. Few may have heard of the Global Health Corps, but as its influence grows, that is likely to change.

“So many ideas come up in group conversations that never get realized,” said corps founding director Dave Ryan, who at the time was the executive director for Face AIDS, a nonprofit group that helps Rwandans living with HIV. “But when we all got together, we saw there was something special that could happen.”

Having watched friends transition from college into careers through organizations like Teach for America, they wondered whether they could create a similar organization dedicated to health care.

“We felt like there should be a similar program for public health,” said Charlie Hale, who works in Google’s direct ad sales division and is one of the group’s co-founders.

They enlisted an eager group of socially conscious friends and secured $250,000 in seed money from Google.org. Jenna’s sister, Barbara Bush, became the president of the organization, after spending time working in Africa with UNICEF and the U.N. World Food Program.

Rather than plunging into provision of health care or supplies, GHC finds people with skills in supply chain, design and technology often learned outside of the health care field, and partners with public health organizations to fill such needs within the field. These tend not to be old fogeys over 30, either; it is twenty-somethings like themselves that GHC seeks to attract. They have thus far sent 22 fellows to 12 countries in East Africa and the U.S., and plan to send 36 new fellows out this year.

The organization has also formed partnerships with the Clinton HIV/AIDS Initiative, which is part of former President Bill Clinton’s global nongovernmental foundation, and Partners in Health, which was co-founded by Dr. Paul Farmer and has a large presence in Haiti.

The Global Health Corps has four staff members in New York and three volunteers in San Francisco and relies on group calls, e-mail and video conferencing at cafes, such as the recent session at Philz Coffee where Barbara Bush, Hale and Chief Financial Officer Jenny Miller exchanged updates.

The group has raised more than $1 million, and Hale said that while he’s aware that the group has more advantages than others, it also has a greater obligation to prove itself.

“Our contacts got us in the room, but at the end of the day, no one is going to significantly fund you unless you show that your good idea can work,” he said.

The Global Health Corps is accepting applications for fellowships in Burundi, Malawi, Tanzania and Rwanda, where Barbara Bush recently traveled to meet with the group’s fellows.

Boomers and beyonders need not apply. This is a new-grads generation thing. Working backwards from the Greatest Generation through the Depression-scarred and the super-achievers and the me-firsters and the whateverers, it is encouraging to see a new generation of energy and optimism deciding to take on global issues of real significance and need. Even if the decider is named Bush.

Opportunity, optimism in Global Health Corps.