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.