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October 05, 2009

Animal Torture Is Not Free Speech

Tomorrow is the day that United States Solicitor General Elena Kagan will stand before the Supreme Court and argue that the federal Depiction of Animal Cruelty Law is not only constitutional but urgently needed to stop the abuse of animals. Congress passed the law by overwhelming margins in 1999 to halt the interstate sale of videos depicting illegal acts of animal cruelty, including so-called “animal crush” videos, where women in stiletto heels crush, impale, and even burn small animals in order to titillate viewers.

The law caused the crush video industry to recede dramatically and no prosecutions of purveyors of crush videos have been needed in the decade that the law was in force. The law has never been used against documentary filmmakers, journalists or others engaging in legitimate speech—the only three prosecutions under the law have involved dogfighters who sold videos in interstate commerce for profit. Dogfighting is a federal felony and a felony in every state—making it the most widely and severely criminalized form of animal cruelty in the United States.

The case before the court tomorrow is U.S. v. Stevens, and it comes to the court after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit threw out the conviction of dogfighting impresario Robert Stevens that was handed down by a federal jury in Pennsylvania. Stevens peddled several videos—"Japan Pit Fights," "Pick a Winna," and "Catch Dogs and Country Living"—all of which showed grossly inhumane treatment of animals, including some staged in Japan. Stevens apparently shipped three dogs to Japan for the fights shown in one video. Some of the fights last for more than an hour, and the dogs are bloodied and suffering throughout.

Dogs of Velvet and Steel by Bob Stevens

The federal law has an exemption for materials with "serious religious, political, scientific, educational, journalistic, historical, or artistic value." After viewing the videos and hearing days of arguments on both sides, the jury found that Stevens’ videos had no such qualities and was an unvarnished dogfighting promotional video, showing acts of cruelty illegal in the United States.

In the press, Stevens and his lawyer have claimed that he is a documentarian and that he opposes dogfighting! Yet we know at The HSUS that the man has been deeply involved in promoting dogfighting for decades, and this eleventh-hour courtroom performance is nothing short of an unadulterated lie. Few drug dealers or arsonists admit they are criminals, and that’s been our experience with dogfighters too. And I can’t recall ever hearing a documentary narrator egging on the subjects to tear each other limb from limb, as Stevens does several times during a 90-minute dogfight in “Pick a Winna.”

Before raking in more than $50,000 in three years from the commercial sale of illicit dogfighting videos advertised in underground dogfighting magazines, Stevens wrote a book called “Dogs of Velvet and Steel,” which is a dogfighting manifesto and training manual. He’s been a major figure within the criminal underworld of dogfighting for decades, and justice was done in convicting him and sentencing him to a term in federal prison.

Sadly, in the wake of the Third Circuit’s ruling striking down the Depiction of Animal Cruelty Law, there’s not just been a surge in dogfighting videos sold in interstate commerce. Most disturbing, we’ve seen a huge increase in the sale of crush videos, and The HSUS released a report on the subject some weeks ago at a press conference in D.C. The peddlers of these sickening snuff films have come out of their dark corner, and think they can now do their business behind the shield of the First Amendment.

The United States and 26 state Attorneys General are asking the court to put a stop to this madness, and allow reasonable regulation of this commercial activity. In 1973, the Supreme Court held that patently offensive material with no serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value can be regulated. A decade later, the high court concluded that child pornography can be regulated as well. The thrust of our argument in this case is that the commercial sale of depictions of actual dogfighting and animal crushing—like obscenity and child abuse—play no part in the expression of ideas, and may be narrowly regulated based on our society’s compelling interest in preventing animal cruelty. Cruelty to animals is a serious social and legal concern to Americans, and, as with children, the animal victims cannot defend themselves. There’s no speech at risk here—just the most appalling forms of cruelty known to humanity.

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