Animal cruelty law threatens free speech
On the same day convicted dogfighter Michael Vick gained “conditional” reinstatement to the National Football League, a coalition of publishers, booksellers, librarians and content providers asked the Supreme Court to overturn the conviction of a Virginia man for creating videos that include scenes of fighting dogs in training.
At issue is a 1999 federal law that bans the creation or sale of a book, magazine, film or audio recording of animals being intentionally harmed or killed. Robert Stevens was sentenced to 37 months in jail for “Catch Dogs,” a video that depicted pit bulls chasing boars in organized hunts and a dog attacking a domestic pig.
An appeals court overruled Stevens’s conviction, saying that banning depictions of animal cruelty is not an effective means of prosecuting underlying acts of cruelty. The Justice Department appealed the decision, arguing “a compelling interest” in stopping those who profit from dogfight videos or similar products, particularly “crush” videos, in which women are shown stomping small animals to death.
“Obviously, we support the enforcement of federal and state laws against cruelty to animals,” said Chris Finan, president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression. “But this statute bans speech, not dogfighting. Even worse, the argument the government is using to justify the law makes this case potentially the biggest threat to free speech in a generation.”
The Media Coalition, including the Association of American Publishers, the Freedom to Read Foundation, and PEN American Center, argues the law imposes a “values” test that will open the door to legislation restricting “low value” speech simply because some people find it offensive.
Clearly that’s an intolerably subjective criteria — what’s “low value” to me may be art, or even harmless entertainment, to you.
At risk, argues the coalition, is a wide range of mainstream materials, including illustrated books, films, or magazines graphically depicting slaughterhouse practices, bullfighting or poaching. But it’s not hard to imagine the law extending to “offensive” or “low value” speech that has nothing to do with cruelty to animals.
So say goodbye to hunting and fishing shows on television. Field & Stream and Outdoor Life could become relics of the past. How about Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, or Amores perros, Alejandro Ganzalez Inarritu’s acclaimed movie? Once the door of censorship is opened, it could eventually encompass depictions of, say, sexuality or alternative lifestyle (so long Logo channel!), or even political speech – how many people find any criticism of the country offensive?
The Supreme Court will rule in the fall.