Resources for Covering the Supreme Court Ruling on Animal Cruelty Videos

Depending on how you see it, the Supreme Court's ruling [PDF] in a case called "United States v. Stevens" is either a strong statement in favor of free speech rights or a blow to animal rights.

The Court ruled 8-1 that a law that forbids so-called "crush videos" and graphic videos like dog fight films is too broad. The law was meant to outlaw videos that show the cruel killing of animals, but the court said the ban should outlaw everything from the intended offensive videos to hunting videos.

The case before the court involved Robert J. Stevens, a Pittsville, Va., who produced some pit bull dog fighting videos. He was convicted under a law passed in 1999 called 18 U.S.C. Section 48. He was not charged with conducting the dog fights but was accused of editing, narrating and trying to sell the films of the fights.

He was the first person to be tried under the cruelty law. A federal court found him guilty and sentenced him to 38 months in prison followed by three years of supervised release. But a Federal Appeals Court said the law under which he was convicted was too broad, and the U.S. Supreme Court now says it agrees.

More than two dozen states (see the list below) supported the law, as did the Obama administration. (Check with your attorney general's office for reaction.) Interestingly, several media organizations, the National Rifle Association and the American Civil Liberties Union wrote briefs to the court speaking against the law. You can see those briefs below.

Think about it: How many times do you see NRA, ACLU, the Radio Television Digital News Association, the Society of Professional Journalists and The New York Times on the same side?

The Washington Post reported on the case, saying:

"Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. was the lone dissenter.

" 'The First Amendment protects freedom of speech, but it most certainly does not protect violent criminal conduct, even if engaged in for expressive purposes,' Alito wrote.

"David Horowitz, executive director of the Media Coalition, said in response to the ruling: 'We are gratified that the justices soundly rejected the government's invitation to create a new exception to the First Amendment. As today's ruling demonstrates, if the Court were to rewrite the First Amendment every time an unpopular or distasteful subject was at issue, we wouldn't have any free speech left. We continue to believe that animal cruelty is wrong and should be vigorously prosecuted, but as the Court today found, sending people to prison for making videos is not the answer.'

"The Media Coalition is an association that defends First Amendment rights and represents U.S. publishers, booksellers and producers and retailers of movies, videos, video games and other recordings."

What are "crush videos?" explained:

"Crush videos, also known as squish or trampling videos, cater to fetishists who gain sexual gratification from watching women torture and kill small animals by stepping on them.

"Typically, those crushing will use their buttocks or feet, making this fetish popular amongst many foot fetishists, as crushing by feet is usually the main focus. The foot (barefoot or in shoes) is thus often idolized by someone with a crush fetish.

"With the explosive growth of peer-to-peer file sharing networks, the availability and production of crush videos is already increasing dramatically.

"Additionally, the increasing popularity of websites that thrive on displaying shocking and violent videos are putting more of these types of videos into the mainstream."

This video will give you an idea of what crush videos are like. Directed by Jeff Vilencia, the video features grapes rather than animals.

The Humane Society of the United States said last year that crush videos have been making a comeback. Now, with this ruling, there is every reason to believe that interest and access to them will spread. The HSUS reported:

"The HSUS recently conducted extensive Internet research and undercover email communication to ascertain the availability of small animal crush videos for sale on the Internet. The crushing videos were easily available for purchase and horrifying in the cruelty inflicted on the victims. The password protected part of one website had 118 videos for sale. The videos were of small animals, including rabbits, hamsters, mice, tortoises, quail, chicken, ducks, frogs, snakes, and even cats, being tortured and crushed. The animals were burned, drowned, and had nails hammered into them.

"Videos ranged in price from $20 to $100. Each of the videos for sale contained footage of multiple animals, translating into hundreds of small animals being tortured and crushed to death for the profit-making of this one website alone.

"Undercover investigators also established contact with another crush website and were offered for sale 12 crush videos featuring rabbits. Another website contacted offered for sale 17 mouse crush videos."

Several states offered support for the law -- Florida, Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, Virginia and West Virginia.

Here is some related information from Scotus Wiki.

The "Brief for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and Thirteen News Media Organizations in Support of Respondent" [PDF] explains how the law relates to journalism. Journalists told the court that if the law stood, it could prevent journalists from doing their job of exposing animal cruelty:

"The goal of preventing crush videos and other animal cruelty is certainly a worthy one. It is this
very interest in protecting animals from abuse that makes speech about their treatment so valuable.

"Press coverage serves the community by exposing animal cruelty such as crush videos, animal fighting and the mistreatment of animals at some puppy mills and slaughterhouses. At the same time, the press regularly covers fishing, hunting, and other broadly accepted activities which, in some cases, fall within the scope of the statute. And the news media has long contributed to debates about what treatment of animals -- from fox hunting to circuses to factory farming -- should be prohibited as unduly cruel. But Section 48 provides that anyone who knowingly possesses or distributes a visual or auditory 'depiction of animal cruelty with the intention of placing that depiction in interstate or foreign commerce for commercial gain' faces up to five years in federal prison, unless the depiction has 'serious religious, political, scientific, educational, journalistic, historical, or artistic value.' 18 U.S.C. -- 48(a), (b). Such a broad prohibition imperils the media's ability to report on issues related to animals."

A related brief [PDF] outlines NRA's argument to the court: "If this court reverses the Third Circuit and allows the statute to stand, then entities like the NRA will be chilled from producing and selling hunting media, and the millions of Americans who learn from and enjoy such media will be deprived of it."    

You can find out more about the ACLU's response in this brief [PDF].

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    Al Tompkins

    Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.


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