Thursday, October 8, 2009

Animal Cruelty and the First Amendment

This week, the United States Supreme Court was asked to rule on the First Amendment as it relates to animal cruelty. In United States v. Stevens, the Court was asked “to reinstate a 10-year-old federal law that bans the production and sale of videos that show torture, mutilation and death of animals.” By reinstating this federal law, videos depicting such things as dog fighting and cock fighting; also, so-called “crush” videos would lose any First Amendment protections they may have once been covered by.

The last time the Court ruled that speech was found unredeeming of First Amendment protection was 25 years ago; in that instance, the Court ruled that child pornography was not protected speech under the First Amendment. After oral arguments on Tuesday, it does not seem likely that the Court will add videos of animal cruelty to this list of unprotected speech.

Supporting the reinstatement of this federal law are groups such as the Humane Society. Their claim is that the actions depicted are already deemed illegal under state and federal law, and as such depictions of these acts on video should also be illegal. Supporters of reinstating the law claim that the law will only illegalize speech depicting "the most extreme and unimaginable acts of cruelty,” and as such there "should be no safe harbor in the First Amendment for those who perpetrate them."

Those opposing the reinstatement of the law claim that the language of the law is too overbroad. It is feared that this language of this law can be read to extend to videos of hunting and bullfighting, as well as to any documentaries that may actually be discouraging cruelty to animals. With the language how it reads now, the decision of what is and isn’t protected by the First Amendment would have to be subjectively decided by the government.

Being a believer in the need for First Amendment protections, as well as an opponent to any form of animal cruelty, this case at first glance seems like one that would cause a conflict between the two beliefs. However, if the language of the law is in fact so broad that it could allow the government to ban videos in which the message is to prevent animal cruelty, then it seems as if this law is not the proper answer to disallowing said videos.

There are already laws against dog fighting, cock fighting and cruelty to animals. To take the next step to ban videos of this, while admirable, apparently does more than it is intended to. At the same time, it is not the government’s job to be the morality police of its citizens, especially at the expense of limiting Constitutional rights. Cruelty to animals is not the same as child pornography, and does not require the same level of government aid to prevent. It is sad what is happening to these animals in these videos, and it is also illegal (at least in the United States); still, to overly limit First Amendment protection violates the Constitutional rights of citizens and as such it would seem appropriate in this case that the law not be reinstated as is currently written.

For the article from the Washington Post, click here.

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