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Supreme Court vs. The Animal Kingdom- Why the Supreme Court struck down anti-animal cruelty laws

In Uncategorized on May 27, 2010 at 11:08 pm

What do "crush" videos and Freedom of Speech have in common? A Supreme Court case.

Almost a month ago, I read a headline in the Washington Post about the US Supreme Court striking down a ban on animal cruelty on video. While I didn’t think much of it then,  the controversy the erupted around the passage of this ruling forced me to reconsider this situation and try to understand it better. This blog is mostly about the recent case United States vs. Stevens, and what the implications of this ruling could be on our society and First Amendment freedoms.

Let’s start with some background on this case. First off, WHAT was being depicted in these videos? According to The Washington Post,

They appeal to a certain sexual fetish by depicting the torture of animals — cats, dogs, monkeys, mice and hamsters, according to Congress — or showing them being crushed to death by women wearing stiletto heels or with their bare feet.

Now, although I’ve never watched a “crush video” myself (I didn’t have the guts to watch one after I heard initial loud mews), it’s not hard to see that they are extremely violent, and use animals for the simple instant gratification of other humans.The Animal Law Coalition reports that “The films, photos and other depictions that are banned under this law show a living animal that is “intentionally maimed, mutilated, tortured, wounded, or killed“. I’m all for humane slaughter, but THIS form of cruelty, by definition, is INHUMANE. This is why I was surprised that the Court was actually DEFENDING such forms of inhumane slaughter.

Why would the US Supreme Court lift a ban on animal cruelty?

The ruling didn’t seem like it was even moderately controversial– the ruling was made with a 8-1 vote, with only Judge Alito dissenting to the majority opinion. Alito wrote in  his dissent that by passing the rule, “The Court strikes down in its entirety a valuable statute, 18 U. S. C. §48, that was enacted not to suppress speech, but to prevent horrific acts of animal cruelty-in particular, the creation and commercial exploitation of ‘crush videos,’ a form of depraved entertainment that has no social value. The Court’s approach, which has the practical effect of legalizing the sale of such videos and is thus likely to spur a resumption of their production, is unwarranted.”  Thank you, Alito, the seeming voice of reason on the bench. For some reason I get the impression that the justices were reading too much into the fine print with the passage of this law, rather than looking at the bigger picture and implications, like most of the world does.

The key law they struck down was the 1999 Depiction of Animal Cruelty Act, which intended to, as then-President Clinton said, ban the “wanton cruelty to animals designed to appeal to a prurient interest in sex.” The case, called United States vs. Stevens, was based upon Robert J. Stevens, a VA-based resident and self-declared “dog-fighting expert”, who compiled and sold tapes of dogfights. He was arrested under the 1999 federal law for “depictions of animal cruelty.”

So, why would the Supreme Court strike down a ban on animal cruelty in the form of videos? For several reasons, such as:

  • Defense experts said the films had educational and historical value, noting that much of the footage came from Japan, where dogfighting is legal.
  • International boundaries may be in question. For example, it may be a crime for an American to sell a video of a bullfight that took place in Spain, where bullfighting is legal.
  • News organizations, including The New York Times, filed a brief supporting Mr. Stevens, saying the law “imperils the media’s ability to report on issues related to animals.”
  • In a 3rd Circuit Court opinion authored by Justice D. Brooks Smith: “animal rights do not supersede fundamental human rights. the interest has-without exception-related to the well-being of human beings, not animals…. Nothing in these cases suggests that a statute that restricts an individual’s free speech rights in favor of protecting an animal is compelling…Third, there is not a sufficient link between § 48 and the interest in ‘preventing cruelty to animals.
  • Part of the defense was argued by the National Rifle Association. Their major argument seems to be that “hunting magazines alone account for $135 million in annual retail sales”and hunting videos, equipment and entertainment makes up a huge industry that would be negatively impacted due to a ban on animal cruelty. In fact, the total worth of the hunting and trapping industry globally is about $1.6 billion as of 2009. But is equating hunting with intentional animal cruelty a fair accusation? I would argue NO. First of all, hunting is pursued as a hobby by many people around the world, while crush videos are not exactly a “valid past-time”. Secondly, hunting requires a license in most areas/states; watching, selling and promoting crush videos does not currently require a license, neither SHOULD it, since it is not an enriching activity.

Here is my response to each defense. First off, videos categorically depicting animal cruelty, pornography or any such obsceneties have no positive educational value. They encourage propagation of illegal activities that are largely looked down upon in our society. The international boundaries matter can be fixed by narrowly wording the law or revising it. And the fact that animal rights are NOT more important than human rights is fundamentally wrong. All living beings have equal rights, and it is our responsibility to NOT harm other species for recreational or sexual pleasure. We may value our lives more than animal lives, but that should NOT give us the right to do anything we wish. And the law has EVERYTHING To do with preventing animal cruelty while maintaining freedom of speech, which is why this case went all the way up the ranks to the Supreme Court. Essentially, we should NOT be utilizing the Freedom of Speech to purport animal cruelty, and the Congress has every right to pass laws against such socially despicable practices.

The First Amendment is largely regarded as the protector of all free speech in the country. But, as lawyer Gene Schaerr says, “the First Amendment bars our government from dictating what Americans are allowed to see, read, speak, or hear”. This does NOT, however, include Child Pornography, obscenity, and other behaviors generally regarded as inappropriate. In this case particularly, the First Amendment supporters appall me. Kansas City Star columnist Yael T. Abouhalkah writes:

This was a victory for free speech because it once again validated the view that the government doesn’t have all-encompassing powers to shut down speech it doesn’t like or deem appropriate…  (Just) because the animal rights groups didn’t like the videos or want people to see them, they couldn’t use a broad law to prohibit videos of activities such as showing pit bulls fighting each other to the death.

So, these first amendment supporters mean to tell me that the government should NOT, in fact, regulate ANYTHING we watch or do–even harmful things such as pornography, obscenity and animal violence. I do NOT buy this argument. Too much freedom CAN in fact be a bad thing, and who knows how many other young adults may be able to view such videos and perpetrate this ruthless habit? In this case, and as a society in general, we NEED restrictions, and the Court should have restricted animal cruelty. It is the fundamental element of the social contract in our society today: we have to sacrifice SOME freedoms for the greater good of society. We shouldn’t be clinging on to the first amendment to justify such inhumane acts and its snowball effect.

So, participation = prison, but propagation cannot be prosecuted.

In effect, I am largely disappointed by the Supreme Court’s ruling in this matter. Even though the law has major implications on areas of society other than hunting and animal cruelty itself, as Alito said, the law’s intent was “not to suppress speech, but to prevent horrific acts of animal cruelty.” What this says to me is that you can go to jail for participating in dogfighting and similar activities (as Michael Vick did), but you can’t be prosecuted similarly for taking a video of it and putting it on YouTube. I find this imbalance to be slightly disturbing, especially in terms of the law.

So, what now? The Congress, like many groups and lawyers suggest, needs to write a more narrow and precise law that prohibits such extreme acts of animal cruelty, simliar to the fashion in which pornography, obscenety and dogfighting are all restricted. This is not the intention of Free Speech, and I say it should be a punishable offense.

Strangely enough, on this issue, I am forced to side with the right. Freedom of Speech, no matter how crucial to society, does NOT apply to any and all expressions–especially when it is detrimental to OTHERS. The OTHERS includes humans AND other species. The Supreme Court has in fact made a grave mistake, and should have been much more cautious with the language of the law than it proved to be. The Supreme Court’s duty is to decide on laws that allow for the progress of society, not protecting the rights of commercial businesses at the detriment of other living beings.

Further reading by Orlando Animal Rights Examiner columnist Stephen Dickstein.

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  1. Supreme Court vs. The Animal Kingdom- Why the Supreme Court struck down anti-animal cruelty laws…

    I found your entry interesting do I’ve added a Trackback to it on my weblog :)…

  2. Aish, I’m with you. It should be banned. Such a cruel and violent act, how can people (women) have the hearts to even crush these harmless animals? Aren’t we suppose to have a soft spot for cute fuzzy animals? “/
    Ridiculous fetish.

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