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Should dogfight videos be protected speech?

Should the sale of videos depicting dogfighting and other animal cruelty be protected by the First Amendment?

That’s the question the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on today in the case of Robert J. Stevens, author and producer of several films about pit bulls and dogfighting.

Stevens, 69, says he had nothing to do with the dogfights themselves. He only made and sold tapes showing them — tapes he says had educational and historical value. He was convicted and sentenced to 37 months under a 1999 federal law that bans selling “depictions of animal cruelty.”

The law was struck down last year when a federal appeals court overturned Stevens conviction on First Amendment grounds.

The  case has divided animal rights groups and free-speech advocates, according to the New York Times.

At issue is whether the court should designate a category of expression as so vile that it deserves no protection under the First Amendment. The last time the court did that was in 1982, with child pornography.

The law was enacted in 1999 in response to the sale of  “crush videos,”  which showed small animals being stomped on by women.

The law applies to recordings of “conduct in which a living animal is intentionally maimed, mutilated, tortured, wounded or killed.” It exempts materials with “serious religious, political, scientific, educational, journalistic, historical or artistic value.”

News organizations, including The New York Times, filed a brief supporting Stevens, arguing that the 1999 law “imperils the media’s ability to report on issues related to animals.”

In a brief supporting the government, the Humane Society of the United States said that “gruesome depictions of animal mutilation targeted” by the law “simply do not merit the dignity of full First Amendment protection.”

The American Humane Association also supports the federal government’s position. “This is a case about animal cruelty, plain and simple,” said American Humane President and CEO Marie Belew Wheatley. “… While many parties may argue the technicalities and interpretations of the law, the real focus should be that it is immoral, it is inhumane and it should be illegal to exploit, torture and kill animals for someone’s twisted sense of ‘entertainment’ and someone else’s profit.”

“While acts of animal cruelty have long been outlawed,” the brief for Stevens said, “there have never been any laws against speech depicting the killing or wounding of animals from the time of the First Amendment’s adoption through the intervening two centuries.” The brief also notes that Stevens’ sentence was 14 months longer than that of Michael Vick.

Comments

Comment from Miss Jan
Time October 6, 2009 at 12:00 pm

according to NPR’s report on this issue on today’s Morning Edition much of the content of this scumbag’s films were taken from Japan where dogfighting is legal. I’m sure a lot of us are surprised to learn that in Japan dogfighting is legal.

Comment from Anne’n'Spencer
Time October 7, 2009 at 8:55 am

After doing a lot of reading and head-scratching, it looks to me as though what the Supreme Court is saying is that the law itself is poorly written and unclear. If that’s the case, and if they strike it down, then what we need is a law that’s been more carefully crafted. Hopefully Congress would put one together.

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The gray level is not critical.