Freedom to Speak but Not Bark
By CECILIA de CARDENAS
October 12, 2009
Has the right to freedom of speech been silenced by the cries of mistreated animals? Should our right to freedom of speech silence the cries of mistreated animals?
The First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America protects our right to free speech, except when dealing with certain inexcusable subjects, such as animal cruelty. In 1999, the Depiction of Animal Cruelty Law was signed by Bill Clinton, punishing "whoever knowingly creates, sells, or possesses a depiction of animal cruelty with the intention of placing that depiction in interstate or foreign commerce for commercial gain" with up to five years of imprisonment.
This law was passed to put an end to "crush videos." Such videos catered to a certain sexual fetish in which small animals -- rabbits, puppies, kittens, etc. -- would be tortured and subsequently trampled to death by long-legged women propped up on high-heeled shoes.
The law has served a great purpose since it was put into action: "crush videos" have been significantly wiped out.
However, now the law is being put to the test in an ongoing case against pit bull breeder Robert J. Stevens of Virginia, who has been sentenced to three years in prison for selling videos containing graphic footage of organized pit bull fighting and scenes showing pit bulls on the hunt. Stevens’ representatives argue that in his case, the law proves to be unconstitutional. They argue that the term "animal cruelty" in the 1999 statute is too loosely defined; i.e., the same law that was directed at the horrific and sexually-oriented "crush videos" should not also apply to dog-fighting.
The statute defines the depiction of animal cruelty as "any visual or auditory depiction, including any photograph, motion-picture film, video recording, electronic image, or sound recording of conduct in which a living animal is intentionally maimed, mutilated, tortured, wounded, or killed." Defenders of Stevens’ case argue that educational videos depicting animal cruelty would be classified under such a definition, as would hunting videos. Therefore, the law should be altered to directly target the evils it was intended to dispel: "crush videos" and other media of such foul nature.
Animal rights activists and organizations such as the Humane Society have taken a stance on the subject, deeming Stevens’ actions reprehensible under the First Amendment. As Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society, has written in his blog, "While we are staunch believers in the First Amendment here at The HSUS, we balk at the absolutism of some self-proclaimed First Amendment advocates." He goes on to denounce Stevens’ videos as serving no purpose other than to profit financially from blatant animal cruelty.
While many cases breaking the Depiction of Animal Cruelty Law have surfaced since it was put into place in 1999, this is the first of those cases that has reached the Supreme Court. As more and more people become aware of this debate, many who are strongly opposed to animal cruelty, and yet firmly devoted to the idea of free speech, find themselves torn. The question now is, where should the line be drawn?