The First Amendment protects our right to free speech. While the First Amendment is written concisely in words that don’t seem to allow for interpretation, the meaning of freedom of speech and freedom of the press have been debated since it was added to the Constitution.
It places a limit on what the government can, or can’t, do to regulate or constrain our opportunities to engage in expression of one kind or another that allows for robust debate and promotes the free market of ideas, while keeping an informed citizenry where we are all stakeholders.
The Supreme Court has interpreted the meaning through time with cases that reflect changing trends in values, society, technology and the media since the adoption of the Bill of Rights and advent of the printing press through the twentieth century.
This week they’re at it again. With a vote of 8-1 the Supreme Court struck down a federal law that bans videos depicting cruelty to animals in the case of U.S. v. Stevens with the position that it violates the right to free speech.
The vote overturned the conviction of Robert Stevens, who was found guilty of selling videotapes of dogfights in 2005 under the guise that “he is an educator, and his subject is the history and status of pit bulls,” despite reports of his involvement in the dog fighting world.
The 1999 law in question, which covers the creation, sale and possession of depictions of animal cruelty was targeted at the sales of “crush videos,” which show women crushing small animals to death with their bare feet or high heels and is also considered to fall in the realm of sexual fetishes. Excluded is anything that contains “serious religious, political, scientific, educational, journalistic, historical or artistic value.”
While what has value may be considered a slippery slope, most of us would agree that materials containing anything showing cruelty to animals simply have no inherent value, and fall on the scale of obscenity or child pornography, which are afforded no constitutional protection.
Some justices went immediately to the opinion that this was a plain violation of the First Amendment, while others had problems with the breadth of the law.
What seems to have gotten lost in the decision is the importance of animal protection. Stevens was clearly profiting from the commercial sale and promotion of the torture and cruel death of innocent animals.
Justice Samuel Alito seems to be the only one to have noticed. He dissented, saying the ruling effectively legalized the sale of crush videos and “is thus likely to spur a resumption of their production.” He added that animals in crush videos “are living creatures that experience excruciating pain.”
As Jessica Pieklo points out in her Civil Rights blog post, “Since animal cruelty is already a crime, the proper analysis according to Justice Alito should have been for the Court to send the case back down to the Third Circuit to decide whether or not the tape in question depicted illegal acts. If it did the free speech questions would be irrelevant since possessing tapes depicting a crime is illegal. The majority, Justice Alito argued, was making an absurd distinction between outlawing acts of animal cruelty (which are already on the books) and possessing evidence of those acts all in the name of free expression.”
In pioneering the need for free speech, it was understood that at the heart of democracy is the right for justice and human decency. Free enterprise did not include breaking the law. Our Constitution stands to protect the rights of life, which includes acts of compassion and acts that prohibit cruelty.
While the courts splice details and spin interpretations, losing the essence of why there are laws of protection, we need to remind our policy makers and ourselves that the suffering these animals experience is cruel regardless of how they word it.
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