As Michael Vick prepares to return to the field, dogfighting makes its return to the legal headlines.
This time it plays a role in what could be a monumental free speech case.
A 1999 federal law bans distributing depictions of animal cruelty. The NYT’s Adam Liptak analysed the case of Robert Stevens, who received a 36-month prison sentence for violating the law by compiling and selling videos of pit-bull fights. Stevens never actually participated in the fights other than making the films. The Supreme Court will hear his case in October.
NYT: The central issue is whether the court should for the first time in a generation 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; the subject was child pornography. Dogfighting and other forms of cruelty to animals are illegal in all 50 states. The 1999 law was aimed solely at depictions of such conduct. A federal appeals court last year struck down the law on First Amendment grounds and overturned Mr. Stevens’s conviction…
The law contains an exception for materials with “serious religious, political, scientific, educational, journalistic, historical or artistic value.” That exception may well protect journalism, scholarship and animal rights advocacy about subjects like factory farming, pharmaceutical testing, circuses and the slaughter of baby seals. But the determination of whether particular materials have “serious value” is, in the first instance at least, made by prosecutors.
Read the rest of the article here.
Most of us can agree that dogfighting is inhumane, and who wants to be pro dead-dog video? But to uphold a law that outlaws video of such acts – even, as this law does, if the video is made where the featured action is legal – wades deep into the free speech waters. As Liptak points out, “[T]he Supreme Court has never ruled that speech about nonsexual violence is beyond the protection of the First Amendment.”
True free speech cases raise hard questions and sometimes present facts that make a person downright queasy. It’s a Clinton-era law enforced a bit outside its intended grounds (Clinton, apparently, instructed prosecutions be limited to “wanton cruelty to animals designed to appeal to a prurient interest in sex.”), though not its actual language. It will be interesting to see what the Court does with it.
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