Here is a question for you to think about. Does the prosecution of a filmmaker violate his First Amendment rights of free speech, if the subject of his documentaries depicts animal cruelty?
This question is paraphrased a bit, but it is the issue that the U.S. Supreme Court will hear later this year in a controversial case of animal cruelty that was overturned by a Philadelphia appeals court. Their answer will have a great impact on the future welfare of animals.
The case began when a filmmaker named Robert Stevens sold videos of dog fights to federal agents in 2004. Stevens owns a business called Dogs of Velvet and Steel and is a published author and documentary filmmaker. His lawyers claim he sells “informative materials about dog handling and equipment for pit bulls.”
He has produced three films. His first is called “Catch Dogs and Country Living” which is advertised as a training film for hunting dogs. It shows humans being cruel to animals in the name of training while Stevens narrates about proper techniques. One particularly gruesome scene depicts a pit bull attacking the jaw of a domestic farm pig.
The second and third films are titled, “Pick-A-Winna: A Pit Bull Documentary” and “Japan Pit Fights.” Both claim to be historical documentaries about pit bull dogs. The video says it shows, “What made our breed courageous and the intelligent breed that it is.” The films are filled with graphic dog-fighting scenes; enough violence that authorities decided to arrest Stevens.
The arrest was made using a law passed in 1999 called the Depiction of Animal Cruelty Act. It banned the creation, sale or possession of material depicting animal cruelty. This successful Act has helped authorities crack down on dog-fighting rings. And it also helped to almost completely wipe out the horrific industry of “animal crush videos.” The 1999 Act has saved the lives of thousands of pets.
A federal jury convicted Stevens of violations of the Depiction of Animal Cruelty Act in 2005. But late last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled that the law was unconstitutional. They agreed the case against Robert Stevens obstructed his First Amendment Rights of free speech.
Thankfully, the Solicitor General would not let this case go and he and the Humane Society of the United States petitioned to have the U.S. Supreme Court review it. It is rare that a case on animal cruelty is heard, but the highest court in the country agreed last week to examine the overturned case.
Stevens’ lawyers say that his videos should have the same First Amendment test and protection that pornography has. But animal welfare groups protest that torturing, maiming and killing innocent animals in the name of entertainment or “instructional material” were not the intent of the free speech amendment.
Furthermore, to point out that Robert Stevens’ documentary business was a ruse for animal cruelty videos, reports show that he regularly advertised his material in an underground magazine known for promoting dog-fighting called the Sporting Dog Journal.
Stevens’ case will be heard this fall and it is sincerely hoped the Supreme Court will return his conviction and stop his “documentary” business permanently.
Heaven Can Wait Sanctuary
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