Journalists Argue that Criminalizing the Depiction of Animal Cruelty is Counterproductive

A respected association of journalists – the Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA) – filed an amicus brief in the Supreme Court case dealing with whether it is a violation of the first amendment to criminalize the depiction of animal cruelty. David and Suzanne have blogged about the case here and here.

According to the RTNDA, the federal statute will “make it impossible to cover cruelty as news, ironically eliminating the kind of public exposure that helps in the battle against such cruelty.” Along the same lines, counsel for RTNDA explains that:

We don’t take issue with the fact that the goal of preventing crush videos and other animal cruelty is certainly a worthy one, but argue that it is this very interest in protecting animals from abuse that makes speech about their treatment so valuable. The brief points out that media outlets ‘often expose the abuse of animals, participate in the national debate over the proper treatment of them, and cover commonplace activities involving animals such as hunting and fishing.’ But the law compromises the news media’s ability to perform any of these functions without fear of prosecution.

At first glance, the RTNDA concerns strike me as overblown. After all, the federal law at issue contains an exception which states that the ban “does not apply to any depiction that has serious religious, political, scientific, educational, journalistic, historical, or artistic value”. It would seem that this exception saves the statute. The ACLU, however, has argued that it does not, since:

(1) “such exceptions are strictly limited to depictions of sexual conduct, which are not at issue here”,

(2) the exception clause “contains only one prong of the three-prong test for obscenity, and [the Supreme Court] has emphasized that all three prongs must be met before speech can lawfully be prohibited”, and

(3) “[t]he breadth and vagueness of [the exception] will make it impossible for people to know whether their speech will be considered criminal”.

The Humane Society, as one would expect, sees it differently. According to their amicus brief, the Supreme Court should rule that the depiction of animal cruelty is akin to the depiction of obsence sexual acts for the purposes of the First Amendment, given that:

“Although [the Supreme Court has] previously applied its obscenity jurisprudence to materials that appeal to the sexual subset of these base instincts, there is no justification in history or reason for treating materials that appeal to sadistic but (perhaps) not sexual impulses any differently”

I think that the Government and the Humane Society have the better argument here. Depiction of animal cruelty has little or no value. It should thus not be generally worthy of heightened First Amendment protection. On the other hand, in cases that involve the legitimate use of such depictions (e.g., journalistic purposes) it would seem that the aforementioned exception saves the statute. The ACLU’s argument that the exception is impermissibly vague is unconvincing, for it is not vaguer than typical obscenity ban exceptions, which are clearly constitutional.

Perhaps some of our readers – or David – can chime in with their opinion regarding the RTNDA’s contentions.

Luis Chiesa

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